Chris Haven’s debut story collection, Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds (Tailwinds Press, 2020), pulls no punches. Out of seventeen stories that span the course of 192 pages, I’ve underlined something (or, more often, many somethings) in every story. Fourteen of them have earned “!!” in the margins, and six have proper, illegible notes excitedly scrawled onto them in hopes that I’ll manage to hold onto it all. My copy is, after just one read, earmarked and annotated to an extent such that I won’t be able to lend it to a friend; the mark, for me, of an arresting title. Time and again, Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds delivers blows, straight to the chin and the eye and the gut.
The relatively simple and matter-of-fact tone of Haven’s prose throughout feels both at odds and in easy rhythm with the collection’s quieter undertones—ones that invoke a sense, despite its consistent grounding in the mundane and everyday, of something odd and deep and just a little bit, beautifully, off. Haven reminds us in every story that there’s always something else, something more to every situation—something that’s everything-but-simple. A sprawling portrait of the “defiantly mundane” bits of life, the collection serves to remind us that things are never only as they seem—we just have to look, and Haven looks so well.
At every beat, Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds looks discomfort quietly, indignantly in the face. The weird neighbor we wish would move away, the greasy salesman who’s maybe an okay guy but still, the moths the size of bats. The sorts of things we purposefully look away from in our everyday lives are at the forefront of Haven’s stories, and we’re made to look them in the face, decide what they mean to us, decide why. While I’m not sure the mechanics of it all, just how Haven manages to pull his stories in this way, his willingness and determination for dealing in the uncomfortable leaves readers feeling uprooted in violent and utterly refreshing ways. “‘Don’t worry, child,’” Haven writes, in his opening story. “‘We don’t choose what haunts us.’” At times, though, I feel like Haven has an eerily good handle on choosing what will haunt his readers.
In thinking it through, I found myself fighting the urge to regard the collection as being pocked with elements of magical realism, because I know it’s not strictly true. It is true, however, that Haven manages to look at the world and even its simplest moments with a lens that sees through the easy parts, through the attitudes and views with which we tend to move through our everyday, non-literary lives. In this, Haven betrays a sort of magic that, as he points us toward so adeptly, exists below the surface.
The collection debuted mid-pandemic, and there’s a bit of contextual irony at play in this fact that adds to these stories’ weight in the end. In a time and a year and a world where nothing is usual, Haven’s stories look at life’s usual moments—and remind us that nothing is usual there, either. In “Moths,” a story that comes at the middle of the collection, our narrator thinks, “And I’d done it, I’d made it happen, something strange and wonderful. . ..” Haven’s done it, too.
Kathryn Davis is a writer and editor from Michigan, as well as one of two current Sundress Academy for the Arts interns. She graduated in 2018 from Grand Valley State University, where she studied Creative Writing with an emphasis in Fiction, and served as editor-in-chief of the university’s literary journal, fishladder. She enjoys photography, her cats, and her dog (who might as well be a cat). You can follow her on Twitter at @kathrvndavis.