I don’t spend too much time reading stories about people who are beyond middle-aged, since I’m often drawn to environmental/feminist writings–and, well, I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to things like Alzheimer’s and geriatric suffering. McGavran’s The Butterfly Collector is a collection of short stories that brings us up to speed on not only life after 35 (I’m 29 forever), but people of all ages who come into contact with human reality; ageing, dying, death, etc.
The collection opens with the male perspective in “The Butterfly Collector”. The narrator is an ageing gent who has become invisible to his wife as the years pass into automated drudgery. He finds solace in a butterfly and enjoys the silence. Instead of asking him why he no longer speaks, his wife simply puts him in a home.
Through the eyes of Cookie, in “The Beautician”, we are given a story about a dying woman (or so we think), who wants some primping before her exit from life. I’ll never understand our culture’s obsession with fake nails, makeup, and hair dye, but McGavran does a great job of showing compassion for the patient who asks for the makeover.
The stories aren’t as macabre as a string of dances with bones; there is a humorous story, “A Friend of Bill Gillen”, which explores the struggles of a floundering real estate agent who just can’t quite make a score until he steals one–and then he’s up to his eyeballs in money and the complimentary stench of rotting flesh. Another giggle-inducer is “Two Cures for Phantom Limb”, in which a Civil War era doctor likes to bury amputated legs in his backyard.
Since these stories offer sincere insight into a wide variety of personalities, McGavran also presents the darker side of the human psyche. In “Breaking Cover”, there’s a tall tale about Mike and his dog, who hunt birds. In an absurd twist, an angry bear tracks him even in death–though, of course, the human species is triumphant in the end. “The Deer” also shows a lack of respect for animals and nature, when a group of men decide that they really do need to get rid of the imminent threat of deer in their neighbourhood. Fortunately, hilarity ensues and despite his death, the king stag is ultimately victorious.
Not so successful are the judges in the stories, “A Gracious Voice”, and “The Forgiveness of Edwin Watkins”. In the former, cancer comes to collect the judge, while the latter’s main character gets a nice, nauseating heart attack.
Not all the battles or illnesses end in death; throughout the stories there are the themes of warring spouses, greedy family members, and piranha lawyers/real estate agents. There are even little old church ladies who, despite their Christian faith, show quite the mean streak towards a depressed angel. The collection ends with the angel taking off and leaving the reader with the recognition that there is only hope, because everything is out of our control, and that’s okay!