Don’t Tell Me What to Do (Dina Del Bucchia)

Dina Del Bucchia’s debut collection of fiction follows three outstanding, hilarious, intelligent poetry books and displays a good deal of the same insightful wit. Del Bucchia’s stories are similarly bold, brash, and self-assured.

The highlight of Don’t Tell Me What to Do is the short story “Nest,” in which Sara, an architect designing luxury doghouses, takes on a strange (stranger than usual) commission to craft a nest for a bird. “She doesn’t live in my house, but we’re close. I wouldn’t consider her my pet, but we have a relationship,” explains the client. “I want you to create a home for her. I want her to come live with me. It’s time.”

Sara first thinks this is a joke, but then takes on and begins to obsess over the lucrative assignment, in part as a retreat from her lover Kate’s insistence that they become pregnant. The premise is funny and high-concept enough for Hollywood, but Del Bucchia crashes everything to the ground with a startling development that leads to a disturbing relationship breakdown.

Del Bucchia excels at taking such turns, with stories that shift darkly and veer funny situations into less comedic terrain. A woman hitting up funerals for food — first to contribute to the household, then because it’s all she feels like she can contribute at all — is the focus of another story.

Del Bucchia’s characters often have this kind of obsessive interest in something, as a method of ignoring what should actually hold their attention.

As a result, her characters don’t often develop in the typical ways we tend to think of characters developing in fiction, outside of becoming disillusioned. At the same time, the stories have more plot and action than most slice-of-life fiction, and strike a nice balance of elements. They’re fun, breezy, engaging reads, with light concepts and dark turns.

Del Bucchia is particularly adept with dialogue and first-person narrative voices, both of which are easy to overwrite. In a story where a woman suspects her husband of an affair due to his sleep talk, she writes: “Mitch has made her snowman-shaped pancakes by dropping three little ones side by side on the pan. At nine she still falls for it. My own child is a total idiot, and I know she got her gullibility from me.”

Many writers would run off for another paragraph (or ten … sigh) in this direction, with the narrator talking about her own childhood or comparing the early days of the marriage to these later ones, and so on. Del Bucchia just has her narrator say, “This snowman looks stupid,” weird her husband and kid out, and move on with life.

Del Bucchia’s less impressive stories have odder structures. One (about a girl obsessed with making shopping haul videos) takes the form of research notes to emphasize the clinical, obsessive nature of this seemingly casual, off-the-cuff activity — but the notes are not clinical enough and seem too attuned to the emotions of the character that they should be disinterestedly documenting.

Still, what such stories lack in mastery of the fragmentary approach (they need firmer structures, more repetition, and a clearer form-tone connection) they make up for in rich, precise imagery.

The stories range widely, from relatively mundane events like a woman paving over her lawn to wilder situations like a former model re-styling herself as a cult leader.

Del Bucchia keeps a confident, firm handle on everything. Don’t Tell Me What to Do expands Del Bucchia’s already impressive range and doesn’t disappoint.