One of the more satisfying stories in this wide-ranging collection—Alan DeNiro's first—is a wickedly funny look at professional infanticide. "Child Assassin" ranks up there with Moby-Dick for memorable first lines: "No one knew what to call him, which suited him perfectly well, because he liked to kill babies, and it was better not to have a name attached to such acts." A surprisingly rich plotline ensues, speaking to the tragedy of letting our "darlings"—human or metaphorical—go (or having them kill us instead). In a mere nine pages, DeNiro moves us from an outlandish premise to a conclusion that feels genuine. That's typical of the stories in this intriguing new collection, which meld the far-fetched with the eerily familiar.
In its relatively short history, Small Beer Press has earned accolades and a devoted indie following, specializing in literary fiction that doesn't fit the realist mode, but defies easy fantasy/sci-fi categorizations. With Skinny Dipping's arrival, that streak is likely to continue. Like other Small Beer favorites (think Carol Emshwiller, Kelly Link, and Karen Joy Fowler), DeNiro's fiction tends toward the speculative, but even that doesn't quite describe it. (After all, what fiction isn't speculative?) DeNiro is less interested in what kinds of aliens we might be fighting a couple hundred years from now than he is in how alien our lives have already become, and how blithely we've adapted. Indeed, as far as the future is concerned, most of his stories don't mention it. The time might be 2006 or 2206, for all we know. And even if we fail to recognize these wayward realities as belonging to our own time, that doesn't mean they don't match somebody's idea of it.
Whenever and wherever they find themselves (often in some remote corner of Pennsylvania), DeNiro's characters are invariably misfits, loners, refugees. In Skinny Dipping, difference—and the alienation that accompanies it—is an unrelenting and at times oppressive presence. In "Our Byzantium," a nameless narrator tries to overcome his memories of a failed relationship while his small college town is invaded by the medieval Byzantine army. And in the collection's title story, a teenager wrestles with the passions and perversions of religion and politics when he falls for a girl from a second-class caste of human-dolphin hybrids.
Of course, there are a few less satisfying stories here too, particularly for the reader who enjoys the clear vision and total control of such stories as "The Exchanges," "A Keeper," and "Salting the Map." Overall, DeNiro's best stories tend to be his shortest, where the economy of detail and narrow focus allow his densely packed, lyric sentences to resonate. The same lyricism can have the reverse effect in some of the longer works, making it difficult to distinguish what's important from all the subtle background noise. Taken as a whole, however, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead is an impressive and darkly humorous debut collection—well worth every baby sacrificed in the making. [AW]