Paul Donohue's Half Dead Road Kill is a skillful collection of short stories embodying both fragility and detachment with a dry wit. It is a book of characters and how they process and cope with all the dramatic events life throws at them. Donohue's talent for crafting vivid characters and placing them into extreme situations leads to unexpected insight into the human condition.
The story “The William Tell Incident” is told by an older version of a young narrator who is oblivious to the darkness that resides within his Uncle Rupert. He recounts a story of when he goes out shooting with his brothers, uncles, and father. Of all the other characters he feels the closest to his Uncle Rupert, saying, “He talked more like us than the adults.” He misinterprets his uncle when he says a deer is “no challenge” as similar to his own view, “A deer is the most helpless thing you are ever going to see.” Too young to shoot, the narrator watches the others. The narrator contributes by finding a blue bottle for his brother to shoot, stating poignantly yet with child-like innocence, “A bullet hitting glass left no doubt and was definitely more fun.” Even when other gunfire is overheard the father is able to identify what kind of animal they might be hunting and says, “Shotgun. Small game.” When Uncle Rupert lights up a joint and jokingly offers it to the 8-year-old narrator, a sense of unease begins. As the story continues to unfold, the ordinary turns into the traumatic. The story captures the fragility of innocence and the naiveté of youth, while still remaining solely with the characters and the struggles they face.
Donohue's story “Zombies” is about a character who feels like he is the only person who sees the flaws in somebody else. It is about a father who is still recovering from his divorce with his mentally ill wife and attempting to reconnect with his children when come they visit. He describes his marriage as a “Hollywood movie, just not the good kind.” From the moment his children arrive he notices the distance between them and reflects with almost brutal honesty on the disconnect. His oldest daughter Jennine is gawky, and he wonders when she will “grow into her body.” His son Jed remarks that the lights on the barn are too bright. Finally, there is his youngest Riley, whom he tries to kiss and gets the response, “Not on the lips, please.” He attempts to cover his own culinary shortcomings by using artisan jellies and syrups. He is met with derision, “Pine bark jelly? Really dad?” Things appear to be getting more out of hand when his son, Jed, brings up that he is behind on his child support. In a frank moment of reflection the narrator notes, “The middle kid, always the bastard.” He tries to explain that his art isn't selling like it used to. Jed replies, “Your stuff is . . . weird. Mom says 'Ridiculous.'” However, Jed admits that he and his friends like his art because it reminds them of video games. In a moment of reflection the narrator wonders about the effect of them living with their mother. He gets his answer when Riley wants to go to the bathroom but won't go because, “Toilet paper on the wrong way.” The narrator asks what that means. Jennine explains that they are punished if it isn't put on the correct way. Riley yells, “Over not under.” The narrator goes in and flips the toilet paper for him. After finishing in the bathroom Riley hops on the bed and begins a dance that is “a cross between an epileptic fit and a tango on the trampoline,” while screaming, “Crazy mommy dance!” Donohue manages to interject levity and hope, while leading the reader thoughtfully through a fractured family. There is still the possibility that everything will be alright.
It is through these small glimpses into the characters’ lives that Donohue taps into simple, yet intensely powerful, moments of love and pain. Half Dead Road Kill takes the reader on a wonderfully varied journey that is often surprising, but never disappointing.