“Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is the sixth story in Karen Russell’s second short story collection,Vampires in the Lemon Grove. For an overview with links to review of the others stories in this collection, please click here.
One of the risks of setting out to review every story in an unread short story collection is that you’ll run across throw-away stories like this one and having nothing to say. Its inclusion is baffling, but it does show that Russell has a lot of fun with her writing, and that’s enough for her. At ten pages the shortest piece in this collection at ten, any vitality it possesses is due to its voice and comedy. That’s where Russell excels, and it can get grating even when there’s something else complementing those features. There is nothing else here, though, other than a bit of lip service to cheering for the underdog and despising the powerful.
Often one to give us a lot in the title, here Russell gives us everything. The whole story is an enumerated list of tips for tailgating in the Antarctic to get psyched for great annual game between Team Krill and Team Whale. We know from extensive scientific studies that Team Krill has never won, but that doesn’t stop the die-hard fans — who very well may die:
Antarctic tailgaters know exactly how hard it is to party.
So: how to get ready for the big game? Say farewell to your loved ones. Notarize your will. Transfer what money you’ve got into a trust for the kids.
There’s a brief moment when Russell expands the struggle between Krill and Whale to the eternal struggle between the holy weak and the complacent powerful:
Team Whale tailgaters fly into Ushuaia, Argentina. Typically, they roll into the harbor of the ice caves on the day of the games, their fleet puttering through the blue archways as lazily as a series of yawns, all those hundreds of Team Whale fans looking so smugly upholstered in their Disney-manufactured whale suits. I hear those cushioned baleens are as comfortable as pajamas. Just the fin portion costs three thousand dollars. Good for you, Team Whale tailgaters! [. . .] Your average Team Krill tailgater can’t afford that kind of luxury. He wouldn’t want to.
It’s only meant to be fun (I hope), but at this point in this collection that has been disappointing to me it was frustratingly pointless, an exhibition piece, perhaps a bit complacent in and of itself.
The cynic in me wondered if it wasn’t a last bit of padding to get this collection out at a prime moment in Russell’s career, a short story collection quickly on the heels of her Pulitzer-prize finalist novel, Swamplandia!, something to keep the hype up while she works on her next novel. I am wary of the last two stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Right now, the lemons are winning.