Drastic: Stories

Drastic: Stories

by Maud Casey

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Meet the college graduate working in a whole body–donation clinic; a young woman obsessed with Benedictine monks; a middle-aged woman who becomes a stand-in talk-show guest; unlikely friends who meet in a domestic violence shelter; a young girl and the father who stole her away to escape his wife's mental illness; a graduate student from a suburban family who believes her physical connection to the world is deteriorating. Maud Casey -- author of The Shape of Things to Come, a New York Times Notable Book -- explores how we survive modern crises of loss and love through the lives of emotional and geographic nomads. Each flirts with madness and self-destruction while reaching toward life. These simple gestures of optimism and vitality, gorgeously rendered, make drastic an unforgettable collection.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061873614
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 275 KB

About the Author

Maud Casey stories have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. Casey received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and her M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Arizona. She lives in Washington, DC and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Maryland.

Read an Excerpt


Lucy fingered the strands of the dead man's hair before she sealed the envelope, sticking the prickly ends up her nose to see what the dead man must have smelled like, but the hair smelled mostly like formaldehyde and shampoo.

The program didn't return the ashes of the donor; the cremains were scattered at sea with the cremains of hundreds of other donors. Lucy was supposed to use this word -- cremains -- whenever she spoke to potential donors or their next of kin. Her boss, Mildred, insisted. Mildred was the sort of woman who was always insisting. So far, in the month Lucy'd been at this job, she'd used the word in conversations with cousins, grandsons, granddaughters, husbands, wives, sons, and brothers. "You do understand that we are unable to return the cremains to the family," Lucy would say as earnestly as she could. She practiced saying it to her reflection in the sleeping computer. Cremains was a word Lucy imagined had been invented by the same clever ad guy who came up with Craisins, the snack food combination of cranberries and raisins.

"Cremains," Lucy whispered as Mildred gathered her purse and coat on her way out of the office to one of her alleged all-day meetings. Mildred turned quickly, hoping to catch Lucy midwhisper, but she never could. This time Lucy played dumb by neatening a stack of Instructions for the Disposition of Remains forms with concentrated intensity.

"Cremains," again, as Mildred put her hand on the doorknob. Mildred spun around, but Lucy coughed and began to hum like a grade school delinquent.

"I'm very sorry foryour loss," Mildred reminded her. Whenever Mildred suspected Lucy of something, she lectured her on etiquette. "You always forget that part when you speak to potential donors. Read it off the cheat sheet if you have to. I know you're a temp, Lucy, but you're a long-term temp, and you really should practice good phone manners."

Lucy wasn't very good at any of the primary duties of her job -- answering the phone, filing, copying forms like the Vital Statistics sheet, delivering papers to the morgue -- but she and Mildred both knew that it would be hard to replace her. There weren't very many people willing to work in such dose proximity to the dead, or almost dead. Even Mildred was looking for a transfer. Podiatry or neurosurgery, she'd told Lucy in a rare moment of intimacy that had sliced through the dull hum of the office's fluorescent lights. The way Mildred's face tightened after she revealed this, as if she were willing the confession back into her mouth, Lucy understood not to point out the vagueness of Mildreds desires.

"Got it," Lucy said to Mildred, now waiting at the door for confirmation of her hanging-by-a-thread authority.

"Good," Mildred said. She slammed the door behind her for punctuation. She tried to storm off, but her coat got caught and jerked her back. She opened the door again without looking at Lucy, pulled her coat out, and then stormed off

Alone in the small, windowless basement office of the university's medical center, Lucy pictured piles of ashes, piles like chimney soot, aboard a barge headed out into the Pacific. A barge like a giant ashtray, which reminded her of the tiny piles of ashes all over her apartment. Since arriving in San Francisco a little over a month ago, Lucy had been living in an apartment with two French girls who needed a third to make the rent. The girls never brushed their hair and were nonchalantly, effortlessly beautiful. They ate only bread and chocolate yet remained mysteriously, aggressively svelte in their American designer jeans. They smoked constantly, ashing in or on anything available -- crumb-filled plates, Lucy's potted plant, windowsills. Ash floated constantly in the toilet bowl, unflushed.

Lucy copied Release of Claim forms, sorting them into careful piles. She made copies of the informational packet. There were certain medical conditions that prevented people from donating their bodies to science. Medical students needed to work on "clean" bodies, as Mildred liked to explain over and over again as if it were an incantation, as if by saying this she could ward off hepatitis, HIV, tuberculosis, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, whatever that was. Lucy figured she still had a good fifty, sixty years to go in her own body. She appreciated the muscle in her licking tongue, the smell of her arm, an earthy smell that she had, until just the other day, attributed to her cross-country lover until she realized that it was the smell of her own epidermis (Lucy liked to use medical terms on the job). She imagined small fossils of her life lodged in the sedimentary layers of her epidermis, secretly and forever, tiny gifts to herself

Lucy heard Brenda's mail cart in the hallway. She quickly ducked beneath her desk, fixed her face in the maniacal way she practiced whenever she went to the bathroom, and popped up when Brenda opened the door. Brenda, who hadn't thought this was funny the first five times, barely flinched. Without a word, she threw the mail on the chair beside the door and rolled her cart resignedly away.

Since she'd started working at the whole body donation program, the French girls' tiny piles of ash had started to creep Lucy out. This morning before work, she had asked them to smoke outside the apartment.

"But zese new American laws," the thinner, dirtier, slightly more beautiful one protested, suddenly bursting into English, having barely uttered a non-French word since Lucy met her. "If we cannot smoke een our own houze, where would we zmoke?"

"How about on zee ztoop?" Lucy asked. Neither of them spoke to her for the rest of the morning, though the slightly less beautiful one had cracked a window and angrily puffed her smoke outside. "Ça suffit?" she'd said to her friend, who rolled her eyes.

Drastic. Copyright © by Maud Casey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Stuart Dybek

“[Drastic] is a treasure trove of jewels to live for—stories beautiful, multi-faceted, and fierce with light.”

Ann Darby

“The characters in Casey’s stories find their solace ... in the moments love cracks the rock face of the ordinary.”

Mary Kay Zuravleff

“Casey tells these stories with a compassionate voice that would give anyone of these people a reason to live.”

John Searles

“Edgy, thought-provoking, charged with raw emotion, Drastic is an impressive collection from a rich and wonderfully unpredictable talent.”

Nicholas Weinstock

“Maud Casey snakes beneath our consciousness, one deft sentence at a time. Drastic is a wholehearted work of art.”

Lily Tuck

“Sad and funny, Casey’s warm-hearted, fine stories reach like a pair of outstretched arms for comfort and truth.”

Erin McGraw

“Writing with power, beauty, and a searing vision, Maud Casey creates stories that change the world before our eyes.”

Jason Brown

“The characters in Drastic struggle to understand their lives...in prose that is quiet and illuminating.”

Reading Group Guide


In this sparkling, daring collection of stories, Maud Casey explores how we survive modern crises of love and loss through the lives of emotional and geographic nomads. Some teeter on the brink of sanity and a netherworld of delirium, some grappling with a grief so tempestuous it threatens to paralyze them. Others simply want a sign that they have left their mark somewhere, on someone, and that someone is better for it.

Each character flirts with madness and self-destruction while compulsively, gently, or haphazardly reaching toward life. It's this optimism that makes Drastic a mesmerizing read. Revealing universal truths about longing, escape, rage, and belonging, Drastic reacquaints us with a writer driving herself and her stories to their often painful but always absorbing and poetic limits.

Discussion Questions

  1. These stories are filled with odd characters -- misfits: Lucy in "Trespassing" who plays unappreciated practical jokes on her coworker and tells the same unfunny joke again and again; the residents in the women's shelter in "Rules to Live," as some contemplate returning to their husbands and boyfriends for more abuse; Flora in "Relief" and her ill-fated dealings with her neighbors; even young Irene in the opening story "Seaworthy." Are these characters reminiscent of people in real life? What aspects of the characters throughout Drastic remind you of yourself? Is everyone a "misfit" but we just don't show it?

  2. Many of the characters are trapped, not by circumstance but by the ways in which their minds work: Josephine's oncoming birthday and fear of following her mother'sdescent in "Drastic," in "Aspects of Motherhood," Tanya's reluctance for a baby, Flora's inability to take action in "Relief," and Rita's talk show ruse in "Talk Show Lady." Do these characters escape their self-imposed prisons? Can we change the way in which our minds perceive our lives?

  3. In "Trespassing," Lucy is waiting for some event in life to happen to her: looking for her interior world to be shook. Do most people need something to happen to them to make changes? Do you believe an earthquake would truly reveal anything to Lucy or transform her life or would she continue to dream about something happening?

  4. In "Indulgence," two old friends -- the narrator and Clarissa -- are at a beauty salon getting highlights in their hair. Clarissa has always been the wild one, moving away from their small town and dating extensively, but with no long-term commitments, except to her friend, the narrator, who seems content to wait for Clarissa to show up. Now, however, Clarissa has a lump in her breast. How does this knowledge change their time together? Or does it? How will they handle Clarissa's illness as it progresses? Why do you think this story is called "Indulgence?" Does this seem ironic in the face of Clarissa's cancer?

  5. "Relief," 39-year-old Flora is in love with her 18-year-old landlord Rock, who she fantasizes will understand when she asks, "How old were you when you realized that life didn't necessarily get better?" Her love manifests itself in complaints, juvenile-like, like a girl who hits the boy she likes. When they talk, they talk at each other, not quite connecting, but communicating obliquely -- they are the sort of people who don't "need another person to carry on a conversation she imagines." When Flora dumps the flower bulbs and dirt through the hole in her floor through to Rock's kitchen, is she telling him she loves him or that she's over him? Does this mean she will begin to "achieve" something in her life because she has finally taken action?

  6. In "Talk Show Lady," "Misery has turned out to be a fairly profitable business," discloses Rita. She has played a woman who slept with her son, a woman raised by wolves, and numerous other unsavory roles on the local talk show as a way of reliving her grief and keeping her dead mother alive. "I am grief personified in a mask turned inside out a million times. I'm a reminder to us all." Does Rita succeed in keeping her mother alive? How does her evoking grief and superiority ("At least I wasn't raised by wolves…") in the audience connect her to the world? Is she more connected to the world than before her mother died? Do you know of any talk show "scams" where guests are actors, not people with genuine problems to share? Why are people fascinated with other people's hardship? Do talk shows help people?

  7. Why was the title of the short story "Drastic" chosen as the title for the collection of stories? Are there particular elements that are more prominent in this story but that typify the rest? "Then slowly, reluctantly, the outline of the world emerged from the black." Do you find the ending of this story hopeful?

  8. In "Aspects of Motherhood," Tanya the narrator is resistant to getting pregnant. She miscarried several years ago and she has just found out that her husband donated his sperm so his ex-girlfriend and her husband could have a child. In the meantime, many of Tanya's friends are getting pregnant and having children. Discuss why Tanya's miscarriage and husband's secret donation might keep her from wanting children. Is there peer pressure to have children even now in the 21st century? While on the job, Tanya thinks, "I realized, not for the first time, that there are countless details in my day that I don't tell Willie." From this passage and others throughout Drastic, do you think the author believes it is possible for two people to truly "know" each other? Is it necessary?

  9. In "The Arrangement of the Night Office in Summer," Harriet's sister, Lanie, has just been stood up at the altar and the family has stayed to comfort her. Throughout the story, characters exclaim "Jesus Christ." Their aunt's name is Bernadette, the name of a saint. Harriet, who studies the history of monks, "baptizes" herself in the neighbor's fountain. At the end, Lanie lifts her arms like "wings" and her foot making contact with the earth "is how we will survive." Discuss how religious imagery affects the tone of the story. Is Lanie this family's Jesus? Is this a story of rebirth for Lanie or Harriet? Does "The Arrangement…" remind you of specific stories from the Bible? What do you think of Harriet's relationship with the professor Elliot?

About the Author:

Maud Casey's stories have been published in The Threepenny Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Georgia Review, Confrontation, Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review, and Prairie Schooner. She received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention. Her debut novel The Shape of Things to Come was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Casey received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and her M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Arizona. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Drastic 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yes. You pick who else im lazy. -___- *faceplants*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
O.e where are you!