Posts Tagged ‘Book Review’

In his short stories, Ben Percy writes characters who work blue collar jobs and live in working class towns.  The male characters do manly things—fishing, hunting, and other outdoorsmen activities—and respond to conflict like men are suppose to—by drinking beer or fighting.  But they’re never one-dimensional.  They have sensitive sides, they question their fathers—not necessarily in the open—and they doubt their own mentalities.  In order to adapt to this sort of predetermined idea of masculinity, they partake in acts of savagery or, depending on the opponent—say, an Alpha male, like one of their fathers—they react by submitting.  These testosterone-fueled occurrences mask the character’s underlying issues.

Percy continues to write about the male dynamic in his debut novel, The Wilding.  Set in and around Bend, Oregon, the novel weaves together the stories of three primary characters—including a fourth near the end—as personal and geographic landscapes continue to evolve in the new millennium.  This change, of course, is met with resistance from humans and from nature.

One of the focal characters—Brian, a locksmith who has returned from Iraq wounded both physically and emotionally—literally wears a mask and suit made from animal pelts in an attempt to feel powerful and invisible.  Because when he’s not wearing it—when he’s out at a bar in Portland with his war buddies, for example—he’s unable to “process friendship or love or any human desire except for want and not-want.”

He puts on this suit to stalk the only woman who can make him feel human—Karen, an athletic suburban mother who tries to distract herself from the malaise of an unhappy marriage by running long distances.  While Brian’s storyline is secondary in this novel, his struggle to readjust to civilian life, trying to forget the savagery of war, helps fully develop the book’s major theme of how little separates man from beast.  And his connection to Karen acts as a direct link to the primary story.

Which belongs to Justin—Karen’s husband—an English teacher who embarks on a hunting trip with his father, Paul, and son, Graham, on the eve of a major rezoning development in the forest where they’ve always camped.  While in woods, the three encounter problems that put a hamper on the trip, causing tensions to rise between them instead of them being allowed to enjoy each other’s company and the landscape surrounding them.

There are the run-ins with a local who’s upset about the impending destruction of the area.  He takes it out on them—with good reason, since Paul is heading the new rezoning project—by sabotaging their trip any way he can.  Paul’s health is in a state of decline, and out of stubbornness he refuses to leave the woods without scoring one final buck. But the most vital external conflict is that a rare grizzly is roaming these woods.  Reports of the bear attacking people have already surfaced, and because they don’t have the modern conveniences that will be available to the area once development commences—like cell phone signals—their family hunting trip turns into a feat of survival.

What makes the bear so significant is its association to the strain in Justin’s relationship with his dad.  The novel opens with a recounting of his most damaging childhood memory: at the age of twelve, his father ordered him to kill a wounded bear found in the ten acres of woods surrounding their home.  This anecdote becomes a metaphor, one that Karen’s quick to point out, for the relationship between father and son.  Justin has a tendency to do whatever his father tells him, even when reason and better judgment would suggest otherwise.

And now, on this hunting trip, Paul is trying to make a man out of Graham the same way he tried to with Justin.  Which Karen had expressed disapproval of prior to them leaving, since she finds Paul’s old school habits to be reckless.  She fears for Graham’s safety, and rightfully so, seeing as she recently miscarried hers and Justin’s daughter, adding to the strain of an already fragile marriage.  Justin wants to please her and to regain a sense of the union they once had, but on this trip after Graham tags his first deer, something grabs a hold of him:

Justin feels gripped by a reckless idea.  The darkness of the woods and the thrill of the hunt and the wildness of his father have torn away some protective seal inside him; he cannot control himself.  For a moment, just a moment, he forgets about his mortgage payment, his shaggy lawn, his Subaru and the groaning noise it makes when he turns left, his desk and the pile of ungraded papers waiting on it.  All of that has gone someplace else, replaced by an urge, a wildness.

The Wilding blends compelling storylines with emotionally significant themes, creating a richly layered novel that makes a reader care about its characters.  Percy’s able to seamlessly weave together the multiple narratives in powerful, yet elegant, prose without making the story seem contrived, forced, or overwritten.  If you’re looking for a solid book that follows the lives of the middle class—the blue-collar workers and the underpaid academics—working out real problems, then look no further; this is your book.

Graywolf Press
September 28, 2010

These days there are so many options with which to occupy one’s leisure time—what with the speed and ease of internet access, the availability of hundreds upon hundreds of TV channels, and the realistic graphics of video games—digital distractions, among others, make sitting still and reading more difficult now than ever before.

John Jodzio’s stories, however, could be the cure for the reader with ADHD. Often they’re only a few pages in length, and they never fail to hook the reader from line one:

“There are some things you should not do in the rich town up the mountain from yours and one of those is sticking your dick in their mail slots or dog doors…”

So begins the title story of Jodzio’s debut collection, If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home. After the death of their little league coach, two brothers redirect their anger and grief toward the residents of the neighboring town, whose little league team had recently defeated theirs for the sixteenth time in a row. They exact their revenge by urinating on and through the front doors of their enemies’ houses, until one day, when they’re caught in the act, they find that the people in this wealthy part of town have much greater concerns than winning little league baseball games.

What begins as almost a quirky anecdote quickly develops into a layered story that delves into themes of social class, family dynamic, and mental health. Which turns out to be Jodzio’s biggest strength as a writer: having the ability to blend humor with heart. He uses humor to undercut subject matter that could easily be overdramatized in the hands of a lesser writer, the same way his characters often try to distract themselves and others from more pressing issues.

In “The Egg,” a young man named Scott shows his need for attention and discipline by acting unruly. In response to this behavior, his father avoids confronting his son by going on “business trips” and stepping on a footswitch that makes his office phone ring any time Scott tries to talk to him. When things get especially bad, his father redirects his anger at his employees by firing them.

The married couple in “Shoo-Shoo,” discovers they won’t be able to have children and leave the issue alone, in terms of talking about it with each other. Instead, the wife takes her anger out on their downstairs neighbors who like to play music loudly and whom the cops refuse to quiet.

Two stories where Jodzio really shines with the theme of refusing to accept reality are “Homecoming”—where a young woman accompanies her mother on a weekend trip, centered around a college football game, and looks down on her mom for being promiscuous, not fully realizing the consequences of her own affair with a married man—and “The Deadsitter”—the story of a 13 year-old boy who has had it with his job, dressing up as and pretending to be Vincent, her neighbor’s dead son, so she can believe he’s still alive.

Jodzio pushes the bounds of reality and the fantastical in his work because his characters, often times, are either out of touch with or refuse to accept their own realities. They’d rather answer the phone, knowing full well it’s a prank and not word on the whereabouts of a lost dog or a prospective job offer, because their delusions have created a sense of false hope.

These stories are quick—there are 21 of them within 171 pages—and take little time to read. As bizarre and funny as they are on the surface, they always seem to knock you over with that little something that seems to be missing in a lot of contemporary short fiction: substance. Which means you can fly through them for entertainment, and revisit each one to absorb their depth and complexity. I can say, without a doubt, that you will not have a chance to get bored reading this collection.

Replacement Press
March 15, 2010

If you’re wondering whether or not Brad Watson’s collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, has extraterrestrials in it, the answer is yes.

Kind of.

The encounter doesn’t occur until the end of the collection, in the title story.  Here, an unexpected pregnancy forces a teenage couple to secretly marry and rent an attic apartment in the sketchy part of town.  One night, after his new wife, Olivia, has expressed her displeasure with the way things worked out, the narrator awakes to find an old couple in the apartment.  They identify themselves as aliens and ask if they can have the child once it is born.

Now, the apartment is located near a mental institution and the narrator, who has been drinking and suffering from heat exhaustion, rationalizes that he has seen this couple wandering its grounds.  In an attempt to get them to leave, he agrees to make them the child’s godparents.  This sets off a string of events where that lead to the couple’s eventual happiness.

Until the narrator wakes up in a hospital bed, greeted by a nurse and doctor that remind him of the aliens from his apartment.

Though the awakening is a surprise—a shock, really—it’s not a surprise ending.  A twist like this runs the risk of abandoning a reader, but Watson avoids that pitfall for a variety of reasons.  First, the story clocks in at over seventy pages and by the time this scene takes places, about two-thirds of the way through, he’s already put in the leg work of creating a character worth caring about.  As a reader, you have to finish the story to know find out what happens (and what happened to get to this point).

Second, Watson’s dreamlike descriptions and compelling details—a patient of the institution hunts imaginary lions, and then the young couple comes face-to-face with one—setup the possibility for absurd and unlikely occurrences.  Plus, it’s not the first time Watson has his readers suspending their disbelief.

The young girl, impregnated by either her father or one of her brothers, seems to materialize in her neighbor’s yard after a tornado rips through Alabama in “Water Dog God.”  In that story, Watson blends matter-of-fact delivery with passages of lyrical mysticism that create tension through tone and language, in addition to its content.

“Understand, we are in a wooded ravine, a green, jungly gash in the earth, surrounded by natural walls.  This land between the old mines and a town, it’s wooden canyons cut by creeks that wind around and feed a chain of quiet little lakes on down to ours, where the water deepens, darkens, and pours over the spillway onto the slated shoals.  From there it rounds a bend down toward the swamps, seeps back into the underground river.  The cicadas spool up so loud you think there’s a torn seam in the air through which their shrieking slipped from another world.”

The main way the twist in the title story works is because of what takes place after the awakening.  While the narrator imagined a happy life for Olivia and him, she (who slept, dreamt, and woke simultaneously with him) envisioned a life with the narrator, illustrating the primary theme that binds these stories together: alienation.  The contrasting dreams illustrate the incongruity between the couple’s subconscious ideas of happiness.  Their parents act immediately, forcing the teens to get the marriage annulled.  Olivia is sent away, and the two become so estranged it’s like they never met.

Alienation and estrangement come in many forms in these stories.  Often the narrators and focal characters aren’t given names.  In the title story, we aren’t given the narrator’s name until the last few pages, which creates a sense of distance between reader and character, one of the ways Watson blends form and content throughout this book.  In the opening piece, “Vacuum,” three boys terrorize their mother to the point where she threatens to walk out on them.  The boys are only identified by their birth order, not by name, because their names aren’t important.

This is a story about a housewife who has to raise her children singlehandedly, while her husband is constantly away on business.  The story touches on issues such as race, gender, and how men can act like little boys, but it sets the tone for the rest of the book with the way it stresses how important a father figure can be.  These boys are so disconnected from their father that Watson doesn’t give them personal identities.

Same goes for the story “Terrible Argument.”  Here a married couple, identified only by the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (even the dog remains nameless), verbally and physically attack each other so often it’s a wonder why they’re even together.  The man fears loneliness over misery, which causes him to take drastic measures when she threatens to leave him.

Watson excels in showcasing expansive rifts between characters by having them talk around their problems or avoid direct acknowledgement of them altogether.  In “Carl’s Outside,” a married couple side step their marital problems in an attempt to solve more immediate and fixable ones.  Their son, Carl, has been acting out in school, and Ben, the father, thinks his behavior is related to their family troubles.  Instead of taking to Carl about it, Ben tries to teach his son how to ride a bike.

Loomis, the father in “Visitation,” finds it even more difficult to talk to his son, years after he separated from his wife.  On one of his regular visits to see the boy, he worries that he’s no longer capable of protecting his son.  When verbally reassuring the boy doesn’t work, Loomis drinks and seeks the help of a palm reader.

Theme connects the various styles of story, from traditional to experimental.  “Ordinary Monsters,” which consists of six vignettes, provides readers with snapshots of people (and animals) coming to terms with who (or what) they really, but they avoid direct communication about the important issues.  Alone, it’s a quirky little story, but it seems more significant when included among the rest of the collection.  Which can be said of the whole book.  These stories stand on their own nicely, but as a whole they play off each other and the connected themes in the same way songs on a concept album work better when listened to in succession rather than hearing them individually on the radio.

W.W. Norton
March 22, 2010

The title of Alex Taylor’s debut collection, The Name of the Nearest River, refers to a young man’s desire to copulate with his friend’s sister until she screams.  He doesn’t admit this desire to himself, however, until he and this friend are searching the Gasping River for a used car salesman, thought to be dead, who swindled and humiliated the sister.  They hope to find the car salesman before search and rescue teams so they can avenge the sister’s honor.  When they find the salesman’s body, their reaction is puzzling, yet it makes sense to who they are as people.

Set in Kentucky, these stories follow the lives of the lower class—people who have little money and live according to their own unwritten laws.  The characters in these stories are a product of circumstance and their environment.  In some cases, the places they live offer little and the people are forced to create excitement or even distraction, such as teens who glue themselves to a police scanner, driving to the sites where action takes places so they can gawk.

Or the elderly woman, a caretaker for the working class men in her life, who just wants to get out of the house where her husband’s on his deathbed.  When she takes it upon herself to get out, she becomes lost, unfamiliar with the land around her, as well as her own boys.  A neighbor comes to her rescue, offering her a lift on his four-wheeler, and she oversteps her bounds while riding her streak of newly found adventure.  But these characters are also motivated by loss, or in some cases, the fear of loss.  They seek vengeance from those who have wronged them or their loved ones because they’re “quick to anger and slow to forget.”

“The Evening Part of Daylight” starts with a punch.  Literally.  Lustus punches his bride-to-be, Loreesa, on their wedding day after she pokes fun of the boutonniere he made from a flower he grew.  Violence is his immediate and irrational reaction.  The wedding guests—preoccupied at the time of the punch, trying to catch a tagged catfish for cash—hear of what happened and immediately respond with the threat of more violence.  Lustus can’t help feeling “a kind of misty loneliness” when he stands before a mass of people wanting his blood and carrying with them “a feeling of moss and old ways.”

One of Taylor’s many strong suits lies in his ability to characterize.  He shows his readers distinctions in social class when his characters aren’t completely aware of them.  A 12-year-old boy named Luke has never known what life is like above the poverty line in the story “The Coal Thief.”  In order to heat their home during the winter months, his family must steal from the coal train.  His father died years ago after falling off a moving car, so now he must accompany his Uncle Ransom on the expeditions.

When a sheriff for the Paducha line stops them, Luke observes the man, thinking “it strange there were men like this in the world who dressed everyday in tailored suits and fresh slacks.  He doesn’t immediately understand who this man is, but he’s aware of his power over Ransom based on appearance: “as if stitched sleeves and raggedy jackets were no match for ironed-smooth trousers.”  But the story doesn’t end with the boy and uncle getting caught and arrested.  Ransom leads them through the woods, intentionally getting them lost even though he’s convinced the sheriff there’s a shortcut back to where they need to go.  What follows is a prime display of people’s capabilities when pit against the elements and survival is at stake.

While these stories do seem grim, its characters filled with despair, longing, and feelings of hopelessness, they don’t leave the reader feeling depressed.  Taylor incorporates humor into his stories, the kind that’s fitting of his characters: dark and crude.  “Winter in the Blood” begins with a man discovering three of his cows have been shot, while he and his daughter are on their way to bring a sheet cake to his terminally ill sister.  The culprits return, demand to be taken to the sister’s house and after they’ve made known their intentions of killing the family, Vela, the sister, cracks cynical jokes, already having accepted her fate long before this day.

What’s surprising—and this isn’t exclusive to this story—is how the focal character, Atherton, empathizes with the men who mean to kill him for no valid reason, other than they woke up, got the idea, and decided to stick to it.

Atherton wondered what it was that made a man go crazy, if it was things down in the pit of him or if the outer world, this cold rushing wintry life, was enough to do it, deadlines and mortgages and marriages gone bad, broken bootlaces and thumbs mashed while mending fence—if that was all it took to drive a man sourbrained, then he figured himself to be near as crazy as Harry.  And that made him feel okay, somehow.  His insides warmed.  A lightness rose in his head.  Unweariment, Vela called it, and he felt it spread through him.  Lovely.

There’s not always a rational explanation for why people do the things they do in these stories, which can be said about real life.  But these characters have an unspoken understanding with those who oppose them, and their tales almost have the feel of parables that put into question the way they think and the choices they make.  Told in the gritty, lyrical prose style of great writers from the south, The Name of the Nearest River marks a new chapter for southern gothic stories, one that deserves merit because, as you’ll see once you crack open the book, it has earned the full attention of its readers.

Sarabande Books
April 1, 2010

There’s a moment in Laura van den Berg’s story, “Still Life with Poppies,” where the main character, Juliana, checks her voicemail only to hear, “the faint static of breath, a low sound that deepened and shifted like wind.”  Is it tension that grips Juliana, or is it terror?  Sure the message could be a wrong number, but she won’t let her mind stop considering the possibilities.

What if it’s Frederick, an eleven-year-old student of hers who continues to draw gruesome pictures of his father being maimed?  Has he found her number?  Does he know where she is?

Or could it be Cole, the ex-boyfriend who brought her to Paris and vanished when his obsession with the social climate—riots and assaults on police, following the accidental death of two teens—caused him to shut down?  Is he trying to reach out to her?

Meanwhile, Juliana is en route to the beach with Leon, a street performer and possible love interest, hoping for a day off from her scattered worries.

This fragment of a scene encompasses what each story in van den Berg’s first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, accomplishes: emotionally compelling narrative, richly layered, told with precise and lyrical prose.

The characters in these stories have an unwillingness or inability to let go of their obsessions, stemming from a variety of reasons that include loss, sickness, death, and chaos.  Their need to search for answers almost becomes more important than discovering the truth about what they’re searching for.  They remain so adamant in their convictions that the people in their lives stop disregarding them, either in an attempt to avoid conflict or because they start believing their hype.

In the opening story, “Where We Must Be,” an out-of-work actress takes a job at a Big Foot-themed park.  Lumbering around and dressed as a sasquatch, Jean provides clients the illusion that Big Foot exists, lunging out at them from behind the bushes, allowing them to take her picture in costume or shoot her with paint balls.  She provides to people what they want to hold onto and believe in.  She acts as a facilitator of hope to the park’s clients, as well as the people in her personal life.

Which appears to be a common theme throughout this book: characters wrestling with science and logic in the face of the mythical, the unexplainable.  Two of van den Berg’s stories involve search efforts for underwater creatures.  “Inverness,” follows a young botanist on her journey to find a rare flower, while a team of scientists pursues the Loch Ness Monster in hopes of disproving its existence.  The narrator yearns to feel “the exhilaration, the sense of purpose,” that finding the flower should bring, fearing that the discovery may not live up to the expectation.  Meanwhile, she connects with a local who’s assisting the scientists because he believes in Nessie.

As is the case for so many of these stories, the characters search for what isn’t there.  They are explorers of the mind in addition to the natural world, and not finding what it is they’re searching for is enough to sustain their belief that it exists.  So long as it’s not proven a hoax.

Diane’s boyfriend in “Up High in the Air” is so focused on finding a rare water snake in Lake Michigan that he completely shuts out everyone in his life.  Her mother’s mind is slipping after the drowning death of her father, and Diane has been continuing an affair with Dean, one of her summer school students.  Stress mounts from the demands and needs of others until she can’t quite comprehend what it is she wants for herself.  In a way, she becomes psychologically numb and gets to the point where all bodies of water become “places to get lost in.”

Water, in this collection, symbolizes hope, loss, and the need to search for and explain the unknown, yet it appears on the surface in many of these stories.  This isn’t to say that van den Berg’s use of these details is heavy-handed or forced.  Water is a necessary image that not only works as a symbol; it also binds the individual stories into a well-crafted, thematically linked collection.

The title story follows Celia, a recent high school graduate, as she accompanies her mother, a biologist, to Madagascar.  As in the stories that precedes this one, there’s a loss that has occurred in some form.  In this case Celia’s father has left her mother, who now insists that she be referred to by her first name, June, in an attempt to recapture her youth.  Swimming is Celia’s escape.  She employs the help of a local, Daud, who’s assisting June in her research on the impact lemurs have on rainforest trees, to become a stronger swimmer.  When June’s theories contradict Daud’s, he leaves and explains to Celia about her mother’s stubbornness that “knowing and believing are two different things.”

It’s no accident that the characters in these stories are researchers, scientists, and teachers.  When the subject matter pertains to the mythical or the undiscovered, these are the types of people who’s beliefs beg to be tested and challenged.  It makes for a stimulating read, which is what art in literary form hopes to accomplish.  Where van den Berg continues to shine is through another technique that acts as vital, connective tissue: motherhood as a subtext for the more immediate, surface-level conflicts.

None of the female main characters in this collection have children, yet most play a motherly role to the males in their lives.  This is the case in “Up High in the Air,” where Diane essentially has taken on the emotional weight of a mother when dealing with her boyfriend and Dean, who holds her, “without desire, comforting me the way I imagined he might comfort his own mother.”  Her mother’s reversion to childlike tendencies also illustrates the mother-daughter role reversal, taxing Diane’s psyche.

“Goodbye My Loveds” brings this theme closer to the forefront of the narrative.  Shelby, a young woman in her twenties, must take care of her adolescent brother, Denver, following the untimely deaths of their parents.  But motherhood still isn’t the story’s focus.  Everyone in “Goodbye…” was or is on a quest for answers or an understanding in an attempt to reconcile the past.  The parents were field researchers, bitten by the same snake in the Amazon while trying to discover new species of primates.  Denver wants to be an explorer like his parents and becomes obsessed with a seemingly bottomless pothole outside Shelby’s apartment.  Jordan, a customer at the bookstore where Shelby works, refuses to drop his search for a 1st edition of Moby Dick.  Shelby, haunted by the letter detailing her parents’ passing, wants to know who Calvin is—the name her mother screamed before she died.

Laura van den Berg shows with this collection that she has the ability to captivate.  She places her readers directly in the action, providing the kind of insight from her characters that, at times, will make you question their motives but ultimately will ask for your empathy.  The debate isn’t over if you will reread this collection; you’ll only ponder how many times you’ll revisit these stories.

Dzanc Books
October 1, 2009

The first thing we observe about Scott Blackwood’s novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, is its small size—roughly 150 pages, when we take into account blank pages and where the first chapter begins.  Once we crack its spine and get to reading, we see that the chapters act as little vignettes, each spanning only a few pages, and that they alternate between the characters’ points-of-view.  Interspersed, we find italicized chapters told in first-person plural, revealing one of the book’s central themes: community response—emotionally and physically—to tragic accidents.

Blackwood’s debut novel takes place in suburban Austin, where the residents encounter a chain reaction of mysterious incidents.  Dennis Lipsy, a thirty-eight year old lawyer, has become attracted to his teenage neighbor, Natalie, and has gone as far as making advances toward her.  His wife is unable to get a hold of him when their son, Isaac, falls from a tree and breaks his arm.  That’s because Dennis has followed Natalie to the theater downtown, where she’s taking in a movie alone.  His wife, Winnie, doesn’t believe him when he says he was with a client at the time of their son’s accident.  She goes as far as to contact his clients in order to check up on the stories he tells her.  When Natalie goes missing, the tension level causes us to grip this book tighter and turn the pages quicker.

We know where Natalie is, of course; we’re told in the first section.  The night she goes missing, P.G. McWhirter steals the Lipsy’s Chevy Blazer, because that’s what he does: he steals the vehicles for money, then they’re transported over the border where they can blend in.  En route to the drop-off, he’s distracted by a toothache and loses control of the Blazer, causing the tires to slide right into Natalie, who was walking along the shoulder of the road.

Later, he would remember the girl looking back over her shoulder at him, smiling, a funky wide-brimmed hat tilted on her head.  We agreed to meet just here, she seemed to say.  But it would be the photo from the TV news he was actually remembering.

Though we know what happened to Natalie, the book still has the feel of a mystery novel, likely because the other characters are concerned with finding out where Natalie has gone, and eventually, figuring out what happened to her.  But seeing the residents of Deep Eddy solve these mysteries isn’t what keeps us reading; we continue turning the page to find out how Dennis and P.G. react to what has happened.  Dennis’s lies cause strain on his relationship with Isaac and Winnie, and Natalie’s disappearance doesn’t curb his infatuation for her; P.G.’s guilt throbs in his aching tooth, as he worries over the consequences of his accident and what might happen to his wife and baby.  Blackwood masterfully utilizes dramatic irony to heighten tension in these situations.

There’s also the case of Odie Dodd—the retired physician, stricken with cancer, whose wife, Ruth, can’t find him.  He’s wandered off, and the community assumes it’s the result of an argument over whether or not he should continue chemotherapy.  We see Odie throughout the book, though.  He’s hanging out with Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple, a man who had asked Odie to vaccinate children in Jonestown—“the axis around which his life winds,” according to Ruth.

We’re not sure if it’s trauma brought on by cancer or having known Jim Jones that causes Odie to walk and talk with this dead cult leader.  But Odie can’t go home until he achieves peace with himself.  Does he blame himself for not being able to stop the massacre?  Or is he angered that he was almost a part of it—ody, being a suffix for the Heaven’s Gate followers.  “Words fail,” Jones simply explains, and we can’t help but wonder how things may have changed had Odie understood what Jones wanted from him prior to the mass suicide.  And how would the present be different had Dennis not neglected his son, P.G. chose not to steal the Lipsy’s car, or Winnie decided against giving up her first-born?  The collective narrator asks:

What if all our involuntary gestures were photographed and then laid side by side?  Would they tell our alternative histories? Reveal thoughts that did not quite become acts but instead worked away secret and silent inside us?

While we ponder these questions, we’ll examine the family dynamic—what’s known and kept secret—and how it relates to community in this story.  We won’t be able to ignore how a close-knit neighborhood can feel suffocating and even cultish.  But not everything’s bleak in this novel.  We’re entranced by the poetry in Blackwood’s lines, which dances off the tongue when read aloud.  We root for the possibility of redemption and become mesmerized by the supernatural.  Hope sweeps over us at those times when the characters’ narratives come together, showing us how they’re connected, and making us believe that while tragedy happens, we can still show compassion toward those who have made mistakes.

New Issues Press
February 2, 2009
$26.00 Hardcover

Of all the recurring food details found in Suzanne Burns’s short stories, one in particular sticks out: metallic nonpareils, those edible bb’s used as cake decorations.  This detail fittingly parallels the ideas her book’s title raises about its characters.  They’re not what the general public might consider normal people.  They’re strange, either physically speaking or because of the way they rationalize situations.  They’re oddballs.

In her first full-length collection, Misfits and Other Heroes, Burns approaches conventional subject matter—unrealistic expectations of love, rifts between social classes, and the search for personal identity—through some unlikely people.  Sure, the book has its share of little people, giants, and characters with extra limbs or missing eyes.  But more often, she deals with the obsessed, the perfectionists, in several roles: bakers, writers, a miniaturist, an actor, as well as husbands and wives.

The misfits in Burns’s collection rarely fit a circus-freak mold; but when they do show attributes of conforming to one, they’re never the point-of-view character.  In these cases, the narrator or focal character is seemingly normal in appearance, yet they take on the role of outsider.  In “Tiny Ron,” a female reporter (of average size) tries to infiltrate the world of her husband, Ron (the world’s second smallest man), in an attempt to better understand him.  This desire stems from the physical abuse he inflicts on her.  She’s willing to forgive him for his actions because, due to his size, he’s unable to cause her physical pain. Ron’s stature corresponds with his emotional size, a rationalization his wife makes in order to connect with him and regain a sense of empowerment.

Merilee, a young white woman and the main character in “Triad,” is fascinated by her boyfriend’s physical abnormality.  Alano—an Hispanic man, two years removed from high school—has three hands and wants nothing more than to have the third removed.  Everyone, aside from Merilee, is on board with his desire to conform: “To be normal.  Accepted.  Finally, and blissfully, ignored.”  Their relationship and conflicting views on whether or not Alano should keep his third hand acts as commentary on differences between class, gender, and race.

Body image is a major component of the stories in this collection; not necessarily in terms of deformity, but more so in the context of what is deemed socially desirable.  The women in “Flambé” and “Bittersweet” rely on their baking talents to attract men or achieve success.  Whether family, society, or an attractive actor has told them they don’t possess physical beauty, they carry the stigma of believing this to be true.  It becomes part of their identity, which raises cynicism and delusion to unhealthy levels.

A misfit is classified as such by society; and in the worlds of these stories, this is no different.  Burns sets many of these stories in small towns in order to show the ways her characters are outsiders.  In “The Interest of Marcia,” “Tourists,” and “The Widow,” the focal characters play the role of Straight Woman.  They see themselves as the sane ones, while everyone else appears to be bat-shit crazy.  And since there are no secrets in small town, the neighbors know all about their odd behaviors: Marcia’s inability to fend off Claire, an over-aggressive neighbor whose past mirrors hers; Olive’s strange attachment to a giant wax sculpture because “the world remembers giants”; or Samantha’s inability to accept her husband’s death.

Burns’s ability to create quirky and odd characters—while they’re compelling and well crafted—isn’t even her greatest strength as a writer.  Where she truly shines is in the way she develops meaning and emotional depth from both the conventional and the peculiar.  The oddballs in her stories aren’t used as a gimmick, and they’re certainly not pedestrian.  And while they might not look, act, or think the way others in their worlds want them to, they’re people with substance, who have earned the reader’s attention and compassion.