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In Memory of a Banyan Tree: Poems of the Outside World: 1985 to 2022
Three Wooden Trunks
The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Selected Poems
Food Chain  
  Janet Keiffer

ISBN 978-0-9717265-5-0     $16.95  /  $20 (Canada)     5.5 x 8.5       

184 pp      
PUB DATE: Spring 2004       Fiction


Imagine Joyce Carol Oates as William Burroughs and you’ve got Janet Kieffer, writing of losers and lost in biting prose that glitters like rhinestones. A flotsam and jetsom parade of burlesque and grotesque on the edgy side of realism.

—Marilyn Krysl

Janet Kieffer penetrates with wicked clarity and intelligence the obese middle of Middle America. Her stories literally render the American Dream in its own excess. If pigs could read they would take Food Chain as the anthem of their liberation. Ms. Kieffer’s work is ruthless as satire, and irresistable as story-telling.

—Steve Katz

Janet Kieffer’s imagination is wise and receptive, multi-faceted, and sharp as a marlin spike. Her stories are spare, targeted, and wittily organized as the best narrative poems of our era (by such as Frost, Merrill, Rosellen Brown or Anne Carson). Read her and smile.

—Pamela White Hadas

About the Author

Janet Keiffer

Janet Kieffer's short stories have appeared in literary venues in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and have been finalists/nominees for such awards as Iowa and Pushcart. A BBC World Service Award winner, Kieffer writes stories which typically concern themselves with the ecology of the human condition and which often contain a satirical flavor. She lives in New Mexico.


ForeWord Magazine’s 2005 Book of the Year Award Finalist



from Meridan, the semi-annual from the University of Virginia
Issue 14, Fall/Winter 2004
by Sarah Huffines

Of all the elements in Food Chain—the vivid settings, the straightforward dialogue, or the plots of self-discovery—Janet Kieffer’s rogue characters prove the most enjoyable. These alcoholics and cheats, romantics and hopefuls, quietly pursue life in the face of tragedy. In this focused study of struggling rural America, Kieffer’s earthy writing reveals characters both uniquely human and part of a greater “animal picture.” Kieffer creates a world where people encounter the cycles of life as inevitably as any animal might. However, she also allows these characters’ humanity—their resolute hopefulness and cruel indifference—to distinguish them from the larger animal world.

Animals lurk in the background of these largely domestic stories. Bears lumber through campsites, lizards scamper up porch posts, and ravens swoop overhead. In “Coyote,” a character provides a list in which various animals lend different meanings to dreams. For example, lizards signify “letting go, illusiveness,” while ravens indicate mystery and “exploration of the universe.” When these animals show up in other stories, their symbolic significance accompanies them. Just when a man must let go of his wife, a lizard skitters through the scene; when characters in “Wormwood” embark on a journey through the wilderness, a raven flies overhead.

The title story best illustrates Kieffer’s desire to connect her characters with a larger animal “web,” showing humans as just one more link in the food chain. In this story, when a machine salesman finally sees the killing floor of a pork factory, he identifies with a panicking pig. In doing so, he sets a chain of events in motion, ultimately forcing readers to see the characters and the pigs as equals.

Presenting humanity as a unique part of the animal web occurs not only in individual stories, but also in the larger framework of the book. Food Chain’s first section, “The Cycle,” introduces readers to the harsher aspects of “the life cycle.” When Diane, the neglected protagonist of “Tumbleweed,” finally delivers the baby that has caused her conflict and pain, she imagines her home, with storm clouds in the distance, and tumbleweed bouncing across the scene. “It rolled endlessly on past the field of grass or of crop, or the barren field, past the knarled claw-shape of lone western tree; it bounced and spun and tumbled on forever through the gold-barren landscape of the Plains.” Like this tumbleweed, Kieffer’s characters drift over a barren landscape, recipients of circumstance rather than purveyors of their own destinies.

“Consumption,” Food Chain’s second section, illustrates characters largely overtaken or consumed by their own flaws. In “The President’s Girlfriend,” the narrator, a middleaged, washed-up saleswoman, sleeps her way out of her demeaning secretarial position. When this “good career move” turns into a bad relationship, bitterness consumes her. She sees her lover awash in his loneliness but still resents his moving on to other women. “Moron, puke bag,” she calls him, ignoring the pain she caused by suddenly ending the relationship. In another story, a woman insults an ex-boyfriend in his dying moments. Devastating to read, the stories in “Consumption” leave the reader looking for redemption.

In the third and final section, “Survival,” lonely and disadvantaged characters pull themselves from the wreckage of previous sections. They survive their crippling flaws, joining a world that ultimately shares those flaws. An elderly woman overcomes humiliation to rejoin the chat room that both embarrassed and encouraged her, while an ostracized boy at summer camp both rescues and exposes his tormentors.

Kieffer’s prose, sharp-edged and direct, carries the reader quickly into the stories. The opening of “The Tutor” reads:

The math tutor had a wife, but he didn’t know how to love her. This is how I learn about math. He is waiting for me in his little room. It must be eighty-five degrees in there and still he wears a blanket over his lap; the Catskills are covered with a light snow and the wind is blowing fiercely . . . There are a couple of pigs outside.

With this spare prose, similar to Thomas McGuane’s, Kieffer locates herself in the field of contemporary fiction. She grounds the characters in landscape, and the reader always finds the details that lend a story depth.

To Kieffer’s credit, for every character mired in helplessness or deceit, another reminds us that beauty (often a melancholy beauty) in the face of hardship remains possible. The landscapes Kieffer creates include characters who will haunt readers long after they finish this book. Ultimately, Food Chain succeeds in its characterizations, connections, and insights.

from "Food Chain"

I never believed in any of that evolutionary crap.
Or how we are connected with the animals.

—Bob Hopkins, salesman

There's something about waking up and not knowing where you are for a minute. The stale air conditioner smell and the hard bed alert you to the fact that you're in a hotel, but you don't know where.

If it's light enough you can see where you've thrown your shit on the floor, your briefcase might be on a table, and still there's that institutional hotel air conditioner smell. You might remember where you are by the clothes you threw on the back of a chair, or by a phone book on the shelf of the bedside table with the lamp. Then you know: “I'm in Topeka!" or “I'm in Little Rock!" or “I'm in Juarez!" But you really don't know for sure until you've taken a shower and shaved and put on a clean pair of underwear, and you think about the day before on the plane or making the presentation, or having a dinner with a pretty thing somewhere that you'll put on your expense account. It's all business. Wherever you are it's exciting, doing business, and that's what you call it, and it's even exciting to realize that you don't know where you are, there in the dim morning on the hard bed.

You get to pad down colorful carpets to the elevator and go out for bacon and coffee and eggs, reeking of aftershave and wearing a Rolex.

When you're eating your bacon you don't think of the pig. You just eat it.

You get to wear suits with pants pressed by an automatic pants presser right in your room. If your suit isn't clean, well fuck, call somebody on the phone! They'll take it and clean it and bring it back to you, no problem. That's the way it was at first, when I was selling most things.

The food business was different . . .