20 Under 40: A Comprehensive (Subjective) Guide

ZZ Packer “Dayward,” June 14/21:

ZZ Packer

This narrative about two runaway slaves that are being pursued by dogs picks up speed as it goes, but it takes a while. I do not like the style of the story (“Lo, the weather of her face” is one description), but I’ve read stories by her before that I’ve loved, which signals that she’s a chameleon, shifting voice and adapting her diction to the time period.

There are some vivid descriptions. The story gets gripping when Lazarus sticks his fist into a dog’s snarling mouth, so as to stall and save time for his sister Mary Celeste. His hand is left “rotting” and eventually “looked like some species of toadstool.” He lives on, and they make it to Aunt Minnie’s house, a safe place where they can sleep. But at the end, focus shifts to Minnie; she grumbles about her “nine goddamn children” to the dark as Lazarus lies awake and listens to her, and then the story ends.

I think this is another story that some may have loved; it’s the kind of introduction to characters and setting that could leave some wanting more. I just don’t feel the plot is very inventive. And when it is, it’s too strange; in one scene, Lazarus gets shot in the head and nothing happens to him. We aren’t told whether the gun chamber was empty or if he’s a superhero. For the most part, this feels like scores of other books I’ve read that are set in the same time period. But still, the story moves along, and that moment when Lazarus faces the dog— wow.

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