Curtis Smith

"The Species Crown: a novella and stories"

(Reviewed by Terez Rose DEC 25, 2007)

The Species Crown by Curtis Smith

Curtis Smith, author of the novel An Unadorned Life and two short story collections, examines life’s trajectories in The Species Crown, a novella and collection of eleven short stories. Birth, coming of age, infatuation, disillusion, death—these play a key role in each story. “Murder,” noted by The Best American Mystery Stories on their “Distinguished Stories” list, is a gritty, stark, second-person exploration of a man who suffers the consequences of his darker instincts while celebrating the birth of his grandchild. “My Three Teeth,” deceptively light-hearted and hilarious, addresses a teen’s dawning awareness of life’s manipulators and losers. “The Real, True-Life Story of Godzilla!” puts us in the head of a languishing semi-pro basketball player, who, amid a foreign culture, finds answers beneath the skin of Godzilla, only to have them slip from his grasp. The collection includes two Pushcart Prize nominees (“My Totally Awesome Funeral” and “The Baby Cries”). “Beneath the Net” is another gem, economic and quietly intense, a story that leaves an indelible impression.

Smith, a short story veteran whose work has appeared in over fifty anthologies and literary journals, writes about many facets of society—athletes, new mothers, perpetrators, seekers, lost souls. His stories are set in a variety of locales and eras, in a judicious intermingling of experimental and traditional storytelling formats.

The collection’s eponymous novella serves the collection well. Stan, laid off his job one summer, must now tackle relationship issues and his sense of guilt and responsibility for his brain-damaged cousin, whose childhood accident irrevocably altered both their lives. Smith imbues his writing with both levity and insight, such as when Stan and his girlfriend attend a wedding:

"I studied the silent bride and groom, and I was struck by the power of the ritual, the celebration of connectedness and shared beliefs. A charge sizzled through the warm, perfumed air, the amiable static of belonging raising the hair on my neck. I sat up straight, a human lightning rod, straining above the sea of bowed heads, and if the path to a world of connectedness and belief led through a florist’s silly book, then perhaps it was time to crack the cover."

This theme ties the collection together—flawed, disconnected individuals, seeking to reunite, return to a less fragmented state—which the book’s cover art aptly portrays. Smith’s unflinching exploration of life’s darker side, however, does not always make for easy reading. “A two-foot length of galvanized pipe. When you were done, there were stringy blond hairs stuck to the metal. Pink strips of flesh embedded in the grooved threads.” But persisting yields great rewards: surprising grace and even redemption, amid Smith’s evocative, compulsively readable prose.
The Species Crown is an affecting collection, both somber and uplifting, a celebration of life amid the omnipresent shadow of mortality. A recommended read by a well-deserving literary fiction writer.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews

Note: This review first appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Mid-American Review.

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About the Author:

Curtis SmithCurtis Smith received a MFA in Fiction from Vermont College in 1996.

His stories and essays have appeared in over fifty literary journals and anthologies including American Literary Review, Mid-American Review, Cutbank, Bellingham Review, Passages North, Hobart, Lake Effect, South Dakota Review, Greensboro Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and West Branch. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories and The Best American Spiritual Writing.

Smith lives and works in Pennsylvania with his wife, Michele, and son, Evan. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014