You may be wondering how I stumbled upon Brad Vice’s story “Drunk At The Zoo,” first published in the 68th issue of The Greensboro Review in fall 2000, and I will tell you with complete honesty:
About a week ago, I stood before one of the many, many bookcases in The Greensboro Review office, and for no reason in particular, I pulled the 68th issue off the shelf. I brought the issue back to my desk and, avoiding work, thumbed through it. I read a few poems—one by alumna Julianna Baggott, another by Gillian Kiley—and somehow or another I flipped to page 47 and read the first line of “Drunk At The Zoo” by Brad Vice. It reads: “It is the smells Jim remembers first when he remembers Prague: boiled cabbage in the halls of his apartment building, the yeast of pilsners, the fumes of unrefined petroleum that accompanied the boxy Eastern European sedans” (47). And for a moment, I wasn’t at my desk procrastinating. I was with this stranger, Jim, in Prague.
We often talk about the transformative effect of stories, and the good ones can transform you in the matter of a sentence. Suddenly I’m immersed in this strange world with Jim as the story presses pause on mine, as my computer screen darkens and goes to sleep. I will emerge from this story a bit later, wiggle the mouse to awaken my computer, and get back to my day, but for now I’m with Jim in Prague.
“Jim and Tereza fell out of love at a puppet show” (47), the story continues—yet another sentence that further immerses me into the story. Who is Tereza? I’m thinking, and why did they break up? To answer these questions, Vice shoots us back to the beginning, the day when Jim and Tereza met, and from there he depicts the fractures and differences that led to their relationship breakdown.
We learn that Tereza writes scripts for a boutique pornographic company. When she invites Jim along to see one of their shoots, we’re introduced to an almost absurdist ensemble: the director, Rolfe (“a failed art student, a refugee from Berlin coffeehouses, a pretentious gopher” ), Gregor, the male talent (“even more muscular than in the movie” ), Illena (the semi famous star of “Teacher’s Pet” and “Love Paint”), Gretchen and Sabina (“feline looking twins” ), and Bobo (“a clean-shaven dwarf” ). The story takes a detour when the shoot gets cancelled and Jim and the unlikely employees of the pornographic company wind up instead drinking rum and going to a local zoo.
While the story takes an almost absurdist turn that embodies the essence of precarious situations in a foreign country (“no one back home will ever believe this happened” ), it never fails to fulfill the promise that Vice made to the reader at the beginning of the story: the promise of showing how the relationship between Jim and Tereza breaks down. We see this most prominently when Jim analyzes a note Tereza writes him later that night:
Gone to dinner.
Be back soon.
Vice writes: “He studied the note for almost a full minute, attempting to interpret whether the word love on the note referred to their declaration, or was it merely the kind of love that always appears on notes” (58). And it’s within these subtle details, these nuanced train of thoughts where the heart of the story lies, the lines that force the reader to be right there alongside Jim, hoping this “Love” isn’t what it really seems.