The surreal collides with the real in Souvenirs & Other Stories by Matt Tompkins. While the situations presented are undoubtedly strange—a father evaporates and joins the water system, a man watches the world burn after a botched eye surgery, mountain lions move into a family’s basement, knickknacks and furniture appear in a woman’s apartment—they’re still grounded in reality.
“The Water Cycle,” for example, introduces a boy’s father as he begins to evaporate and disappear into the water cycle. His father returns from time to time, in a cup of coffee at one point, a wave in another, but moves on to re-cycle through the water system once more. We can take this literally: his father has really turned into water. Or perhaps the boy’s father left in a more conventional way, through divorce or abandonment, and believing he disappeared into water is the only way for the narrator to comprehend the loss and still feel connected to the man who’s no longer there.
This isn’t the only flash piece in Souvenirs & Other Stories that works this way. In “The World on Fire,” is the narrator really watching flames consume the world around him after his reduced-price eye surgery, or are we watching someone in the midst of an existential crisis? Tompkins plunges us into the weird, keeping real life still within reach.
These strange situations are met almost lightly by the narrators, sometimes more calmly than one might expect. In “Seeking Advice and/or Assistance Re: Mountain Lions,” the narrator explains his alarming situation:
There’s a family of mountain lions living in my basement.
I say a family because I know there’s more than one, but I don’t know exactly how many. If I knew how many, I’d just give you the hard number. Like five mountain lions. But that would only be a guess.
While he (understandably) slips into hysterics a few times, the narrator makes it through his story and then leaves readers to carry on living his odd life. At the end of the day, that’s what most of the characters in this collection want: to just make it through the life they’re given, even if it’s a life overrun by mountain lions or randomly appearing souvenirs. As the characters maneuver around the new oddities in their lives, the stories almost border on campy at times with narrators speaking directly to the audience, slipping in asides for our benefit and softening the blow of the heavier stories. While not normally my favorite style of narration, Tompkins delivers. His voice never distracts as he expertly balances the use of this device.
In Souvenirs & Other Stories, Tompkins shoves the door wide open and welcomes the surreal into reality. With characters and situations that are relatable despite their oddities, readers are sure to connect with this pocket-sized collection of flash souvenirs.