The stories in Hannah Tinti's debut anthology Animal Crackers all feature animals, usually as symbols and narrative substitutes: A husband who viciously beats his unfaithful wife is associated with man-eating wild beasts, or zoo denizens who unexpectedly turn on their keepers; a stuffed bear symbolizes the future of a man who wants his body turned into elaborate artwork when he dies; a pet snake left behind after a relationship dissolves becomes a complicated allegory for that relationship, and so forth. But while the structural gimmick remains fairly static throughout the book, Tinti's individual stories display so much craft and creativity that the strings rarely show.
Some of Animal Crackers' installments have fantastic or weirdly whimsical elements: In "Reasonable Terms," three zoo giraffes strike for better living conditions, while in "Gallus, Gallus," a man who never learned to tie his shoes comes into conflict with his wife's pet rooster. Other stories are far more down to earth, dealing with domestic violence, broken relationships, and animal abuse. In either mode, Tinti writes easily and subtly, stringing her figurative narratives alongside her literal ones without drawing obvious arrows between them. She never directly spells out the connection between a mutilated cat and the family dealing with a disturbed child who wounds everyone and everything around him, so readers are left free to examine the symbolism and draw their own conclusions, or take in the whole story as a tonally apt series of literal events. Animal Crackers' stories are compelling and beautifully shaped on the surface, but they reward further analysis; the more complex narratives resemble fractal patterns, with neatly crafted metaphors that repeat on several levels.
Tinti's motif sometimes gets the better of her; the roving dog in the bittersweet murder story "Home Sweet Home" just seems like a distraction from the human protagonists, while the suffering but passive tortured rabbit in "Slim's Last Ride" is too much emblem, not enough animal. But the missteps are minor, and far between. For the most part, Animal Crackers is a terrific debut that weighs down airy, high-concept thought pieces with animal flesh and human blood alike.