“Other Household Toxins” by Christopher Allen

Good morning, Story366! Today is a beautiful day if there ever was one, in the sixties, sunny, dry, birds chirping outside my window. In every sensible world, I’d be outside, doing something with the youngest, who doesn’t get on a bus for school until 12:15. He could ride his bike back and forth on our block. We could have a catch. We could look for butterflies. We could clean the gutters, him dropping leaves and helicopters and dead birds down to me from up on a ladder. You know, father-son bonding stuff.

As I noted the other day while posting on Kerry Neville, however, I’m pretty stoked to read all these books I picked up at AWP last month, to write about them, to keep Story366 trucking along. Along with a half-dozen more books I picked up in Tampa, my Save-for-Later sub-Cart on Amazon—how I keep track of which books I need to get, read, and write about—is up to ninety-three books, including some that have been there for a couple of years, some that I added after discovering them at Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and then a whole bunch more I found on this cool list last night. What that boils down to is short stories are awesome, presses are publishing collections, and I want to read every damn one of them.

Today’s entry comes from Matter Press‘s Other Household Toxins by Christopher Allen. Chris is a cohort of mine from the SmokeLong Quarterly world, Chris serving as the Managing Editor and me (along with the Karen) as Interviews Editor. I’ve only met Chris on a couple of occasions, but have corresponded with him at least sixty thousand times. Most of those correspondences go something to the tune of Hey, Mike, we’re finishing the new issue up and we really need those interviews, and then I’m like, I didn’t send those to you the other day? Really? Well, I’m going into my office tomorrow (pretending I don’t have email at home or on my phone) and I’ll resend. So sorry this happened again! Stupid technology! And then I start finally start assigning the interviews, start thinking about my responsibility for the first time. I can usually fake an Internet outage to give myself another half day, fake some medical procedure (by Chris’ count, I’ve had eleven vasectomies and ten reversals), and have rushed to the hospital for the birth of another child—Chris thinks Karen and I are the Duggars of Southwest Missouri. For the next issue, if I’m behind, I might track Chris down in Europe—where he lives somewhere—and set off a pinch, like in Ocean’s 11 or Captain America: Civil War, just to give me an extra day.

But when I saw that Chris’ debut collection was coming out, I had to grab a copy, have Chris sign it at the SmokeLong Quarterly table in Tampa, and put it on the short stack of books to cover here. A month later, here we are, me reading this flash collection last night and this morning. Lots of great pieces to choose from, published in the widest array of lit mags I’ve ever seen a writer showcased. I really loved pieces like “Sisters,” “When Susan Died the First Time,” and “The Pain Taster,” but because I always do this, am going to write about the title story, “Other Household Toxins,” the last piece in the collection.

I like “Other Household Toxins” for a lot of reasons, but firstly, it’s one of the better title stories I’ve seen in a while in the way in encompasses/represents/symbolizes/speaks for the collection as a whole. In the story, the title is taken from a line that the protagonist says to someone in a dream, referring to the general sense of the phrase, poisons that we all keep on hand, bottles of bleach and furniture polish, bags of moth balls, disgusting Brussels sprouts waiting to be cooked so they can emit their foul odor. In the big picture, Allen is more or less talking about the people we live with, those folks around our house who bring pain and suffering and conflict and general annoyance to our lives. Reading through this book, it’s hard to nail down one particular theme—there’s a lot of stories—but the characters in these fictions seem most troubled, most bothered, and most hurt by the ones they love, as the song (sorta) goes. Aren’t we all?

Since this is a flash collection, the stories are of course short, so I won’t do much of a rundown, not without risk of major spoilage. “Other Household Toxins” the story is about this guy, unnamed, who endeavors on sorting out a dream, one that seems to consistently involve a girl, a tree, some smoke, and a squirrel. The speaker here is constantly returning to this dream, and because of the nature of dreams and how we remember them (or manipulate them), the dream keeps changing. Maybe it’s because he has the dream all the time and it varies with each incarnation, or it’s because he can’t fully recall exactly what happened that one time.

In any case, the main action of the dream seems to be happening at a funeral or wake, or maybe just a gathering after someone has died. The protagonist’s father is weeping. Everyone’s weeping. The protagonist, to escape the weeping, goes out back—this seems to be happening in a farmhouse, something out of Grant Wood—and encounters the aforementioned quartet: the girl, the tree, the smoke (which, by the way, tends to come from a joint), and the squirrel. The protagonist engages these elements—mainly the girl—and from there, that’s where things diverge. Sometimes the tree looks one way, sometimes another. That sort of thing.

And that’s really as far as I can go without divulging too much (if I haven’t already), as the dream, as dreams tend to do, gets really strange, feeling mercurial and symbolic. And then, just like that, “Other Household Toxins” and Other Household Toxins is done.

While I’m not a fan of dream stories—that’s on the Nah … list in my classes—I oddly love meta-investigations of dreams, someone trying to figure out what haunts them, someone cyclically distraught, someone recognizing how powerless they are in the midst of their own consciousness (and conscience). Allen handles that exquisitely in this story, and in a way, that’s what this book is, Allen returning, time and again, to misfortune, quirk, and anomaly in his stories, different yet unique versions of an exercise. I’m not trying to say Allen has worked through a nightmare by writing this book, exorcising some recurring vision he can’t shake. I mean, no more than the rest of us writers do, anyway.

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“The Lionman” by Kerry Neville

What’s up, Story366? Look at me, writing another entry after just posting one a week ago.  I’ve gotten my hands on a lot of good books recently, including a big stash at AWP, so I have a stack on my desk staring me down. I also was at Barnes & Noble this past weekend and ran into four or five brand-new collections that I want to pick up. In short, I’ve been energized by all these stories surrounding me and really couldn’t wait to get back to it, make another post. My quest to review every short story collection ever has been reinvigorated!

Today’s collection, Remember to Forget Me by Kerry Neville, comes to us from Braddock Avenue Books, more specifically their Alleyway Books imprint. I like the books from this press. I’ve reviewed four so far, an eclectic and solid stable of story writers. Their editor, Jeffrey Condran, stopped by the Moon City table at AWP and dropped off a couple of titles (Note: Editors, this is a fantastic way to get your books reviewed at Story366) and I’m glad to have found Neville’s book in the pile. I’ve read a story or two by her before—all of the pieces appeared in prominent lit mags before the collection came out—but was, as always, was pleased to have her book in my hands.

I read a few stories from this collection, starting with the title story, a piece about a guy whose wife has Alzheimer’s and is living in a facility for such folks, the guy having to deal with the fact that the love his life and 46-year partner no longer knows who he is, and, in fact, is frightened by him and screams whenever he’s around. The second story I read, “The Hitman of Bucharest,” is similar, this time about a guy living on Fulbright in Bucharest not long after his wife has committed suicide. The third story I read, “The Lionman,” the last story in the book, read a lot differently, almost as if by a different writer, and immediately, I knew it would be the one I focused on here.

“The Lionman” is about the Lionman, a then-called freak in an early twentieth-century Brooklyn circus named Dreamland. The Lionman a guy short in stature completely covered by hair and his job at the circus is to sit in a cage and growl at people as they walk by. Some people toss him scraps of food (which I’m guessing he has to eat), the smarter folks seeing what’s going on and tossing him some coins instead. It’s been his existence since he was five, his birth mom selling him to the circus when she grew tired of shaving him, of trying to deal with the situation—I should probably note that the Lionman’s father was mauled to death by a lion in the Central Park zoo a month and a half before the Lionman was born. Of course, this isn’t how genetics work and has nothing to do with why the Lionman is covered in hair, but it certainly contributes to his name and his mother’s inability to raise him, on her own and convinced that the pregnancy was cursed by her husband’s grizzly demise.

But all that comes to us in backstory. The story starts with the Lionman as an adult, a lifelong performer, and focuses more on the Lionman’s attempts to be more normal, to find human affection and interaction. In some ways, he gets more interaction than anyone needs, people staring at him and poking at him and heckling him all day, the bright spots those people who see him for what he is—a person with a shitty job and a shitty affliction (hypertrichosis, according to Wikipedia, aka, “werewolf syndrome”) and look at him with pity and compassion instead of fear or revolt.

That’s not really good enough for the Lionman, however, and it shouldn’t be. There are several mentions of visits to prostitutes, and even those aren’t exactly tender affairs, his contact with them often limited; the circus nurse assumes he has lice and that he scares the children. At one point, he seems to have had a relationship with Violetta, the Half-Woman, another performer (born without arms and legs), with whom the Lionman smokes and rides Ferris wheels, but perhaps not much else.

Hope comes in the form of Hildy, the circus owner’s daughter, who takes a shine to the Lionman, even finds out his real name for us: Stephan Bibrowski (Hey! The Lionman’s Polish!). Hildy senses what any decent person would, that Stephan has feelings, that he might not want to live in a rusty cage and have people spit at him.

Hildy gets the Lionman in at the Incubator, this barn at the edge of the property that holds a bunch of preemies, a collection of babies born way too early, tiny things either born in the circus or perhaps left there. There, once Hildy convinces the nurse there is no lice, Stephan can hold and help care for the needy infants.

Hold up for a major sidebar: Honestly, I didn’t know why these tiny babies were at the circus in a building dubbed “The Incubator.” As I read—and I read this story three times to make sure I wasn’t missing anything—I assumed that they were either born in the circus, the children of the “freaks,” or were left there by ordinary citizens who simply didn’t want their preemies and for some reason gave them to the circus. Curious, I looked up “circus preemies” and found this really informative article that told me that this was in fact a real thing, that Dreamland, too, was a real part of Coney Island, as was Hildy and her father. Dreamland ran a free-to-parents incubator nursery where Brooklynites and others could see their premature babies come to full term, which seems like a really great and human thing (maybe to counter the fact the same circus put a bunch of humans in cages and called them “freaks”). All in all, this is historical fiction—I learned something today!

And, yes, of course, I checked: the Lionman was real, too:

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Even more historical!

How does the realness—which I’ve discovered as I write this post—change my reading of the story? It clears a few things up, I suppose, as I’d feared the worst, that Dreamland was taking unwanted preemies and grooming them into its future cage-dwellers. Glad that wasn’t it (but then again, if this was all fiction, what would it matter?).

A big, dramatic event concludes “The Lionman,” and as always, I won’t reveal that here, though it adds a rousing, redeeming feel to the story. I liked the story before I knew about its historical nature and suppose I like it more now. Either way, in “The Lionman” Neville does what she seems to do in all these stories (or at least the ones I’ve read), and that’s pinpoint the apex of her protagonists’ pain, then write about how they deal. Whether it’s the guy whose wife is suddenly “with” another man in her Alzheimer’s home or the guy who’s trying to raise a son in a foreign country after his wife kills herself or it’s this circus performer who’s treated like an animal, Neville seems familiar with pain and suffering, or is at least able to project it onto the page. It takes the form of living people and their interesting yet devastating situations. I.e., short stories.

“The Lionman,” unlike the other, more contemporary stories, is also written in another style, as if Neville is mimicking a more Modern approach, her other works feeling more contemporary in diction and structure, employing more conventional linearity and psychic distance as well.

Is this the most rambling of all my Story366 posts? Maybe. Maybe I’m out of practice, but the long and the short of it is I liked reading Neville’s stories, admired how she was able to tackle themes and plots that I can’t bring myself to write about. How she humanized and individualized people who are easy to peg, easy to take for granted as tropes. That’s what I’m guessing Remember to Forget Me is all about, the people who are forgotten—after all, that title, in the title story, isn’t referring to the person who has the actual memory loss ,but the person who’s left behind: He’s the one who who is being instructed to forget (easier said than done, we find out, time after time). Three stories in, this collection seems to be about the people left behind, what they face in the wake of their despair, and how they soldier on. It’s a good theme for a good book, one I’m better for having picked up.

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“Lost-and-Found Girls” by David Armstrong

Hello there, Story366 loyalists! Yet again, it’s been awhile since I’ve blogged a new entry, which seems to be how I start all of these. Every time I do one, I think I’ll do another the next day, or maybe one a week, but then I don’t. My goal in life today was to get the boys to school, meet with a student I was scheduled to meet with, and write this entry, and it looks like I’m three for three. I probably should have included “get the boys from school” on that list. Fear not: I figure they’re so jacked up on Easter candy and will be coming down soon, they’ll be needing more. They’ll find their way home, to their baskets.

The majority of the distraction since last time has been Moon City Press-related, as I put out a couple of titles, Moon City Review 2018 and Undoing by Kim Magowan, which isn’t easy, putting out two titles at once. I do the same thing every fall, but it’s harder in the spring, as there’s an actual deadline, us getting copies of the books to AWP, which is the other thing that kept me from blogging (though last year, I wrote my Jensen Beach entry at the MCP book fair table). The good news is, both the new MCR and Kim’s book were done in time to ship to Tampa, where we gave away three hundred copies of the journal and sold a box and a half of Kim’s book, her debut (love seeing authors with their first books!). Overall, I dug Tampa a whole lot, both as a city and as an AWP site, putting it in the top five places at which I’ve attended that conference (18 of the last 19 years). I liked Denver a whole lot, how the conference center just poured into the downtown. I liked Austin a lot for the same reason, and how SXSW was there, in the same conference center, at the same time. And of course I loved having AWP in Chicago, three times now, especially since I had books debut two of those years, including my first book, which was pretty special. I ate good food in Tampa, met a lot of friends, had some good drinks, such as a Big Al’s Window Cleaner

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… which we all thought was going to be some badassmotherfucker of a drink that stripped the shit off our stomach walls—it ended up being really fruity and delicious. That’s all I can ask for in a conference: friends, food, and fruitiness. Portland, here we come.

For today’s entry, I read from David Armstrong‘s collection, Reiterations, a recent (2014) winner of the New American Fiction Prize from New American Press. I’d not read anything by Armstrong before, so I was eager to see what this author had to offer, a guy who’s the author of another collection, Going Anywhere, and a chapbook, Missives From the Green Campaign.

I read the first three stories from Reiterations, which is cut into six Roman-numbered and titled sections, two stories per section. The section titles run along the lines of “In which is discussed the violence of men and the strength of women,” the first section, and “In which is discussed disenfranchisement and alienation,” the second section, etc. I’m writing about the first story, “Lost-and-Found Girls,” which is in that first section (of course), and is surely about the violence of men (several men) and the strength of women (or at least one woman). It’s the tale of Heath, a middle-aged small-town newspaper man whose only daughter, Amelia, has run away, has been gone for years, no word, no trace, little hope to see her again. Heath and his wife, Shannon, are devastated, and before long, begin to grow apart, their existences dwindling at the same time. Heath, who refused to work at his father-in-law’s farm, instead purchasing a tiny paper. This worked, for a while, when Heath was young and happy and all-in, but after Amelia’s disappearance, the paper dwindles along with Heath and his marriage. His farmer father-in-law (think of William H. Macy’s father-in-law in Fargo) is ready to wring his neck, blaming him for his Shannon’s misery and Amelia’s disappearance. Heath is a pathetic protagonist, to be sure.

Still a talented reporter and investigator, Heath sets out on finding Amelia after law enforcement officials and private eyes fail him. He inundates himself with Google search techniques and amongst his findings, he discovers a grisly set of murders. The murders are all of women, of various ages and backgrounds and geographical locations, with one consistency: Their remains are discovered underneath hotel room mattresses. Heath becomes obsessed with these cases, wondering if they’re connected (though it’s presented as unlikely by Armstrong), and eventually, assumes Amelia has fallen victim to this very fate. It doesn’t make sense, thousands of women disappearing every year and only a half dozen ever showing up in a mattress, but that’s the fiction here, Heath making this connection, unable to get it out of his head. Maybe it’s grief. Maybe it’s guilt. Whatever it is, it’s a very specific type of self-torture.

As their marriage gasps and wheezes, Heath proposes a trip to Shannon, a way to start over, Heath manipulating her to Las Vegas; uncoincidentally, it’s where a few of the mattress women have been discovered. In the guise of a vacation, Shannon seems to be smitten with Heath again, but we know Heath’s ulterior motive: He wants to see one of the crime scenes, make that physical connection to his obsession.

To make things more interesting, Armstrong has Heath pick up a hooker on his way to one of these aforementioned murder sites, a hooker who thinks she’s simply getting an old guy off, charging extra because it’s off the strip. The really beauty of this story, what makes is so compelling, is how Armstrong keeps Heath’s true intentions from us until the end: Is he going to kill Jezzebelle (the hooker) and stuff her body inside the box spring? Is he going to pretend she’s Amelia? Is he simply going to have sex with her (along with maybe one of the other options)? I won’t reveal what happens here, but for sure, the shit gets pretty intense.

Interspersed between Heath’s frontstory and backstory scenes are newspaper snippets of the murder reports, each victim’s name, age, place of discovery, and thumbnail biography presented for us to read, Armstrong basically gives us Heath’s bulletin board to peruse as we read the rest of the story. It’s a nice touch, as each vignette is a story on its own, tragic and creepy and foreboding all at once, making “Lost-and-Found Girls” an exhilarating read, one I enjoyed a whole lot.

I’m glad I got a chance to discover David Armstrong’s work, which seems to target pretty average people stuck in tense situations. Reiterations‘ second story, “French for Weaklings,” is about a woman traveling the backroads of Appalachian Ohio, her car breaking down, strangers coming upon her, the woman insisting she’s in control as we hear banjo music plucked in our heads. The third, “Eggs and Bacon and Coffee,” is about a small-town high school boy, abused and abandoned, who finds an outlet for his rage on the football field. I read so little realism these days—check my recent archives—it was refreshing to read this collection, to find a writer who has the talent to make something happen in the real world, to make it so compelling, to be in such control of what’s already out there, waiting to be fiction.

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“Bettering Myself” by Ottessa Moshfegh

Greetings, Story366! I hope you’re having a wonderful Saturday of President’s Day weekend. I remember during the actual Story366 two years, ago, me scouring through collections to uncover a story that had something to do with presidents, finding “Reagan’s Army in Retreat” by Jerry Gabriel, a story that really had nothing to do with President’s Day, but hey, it felt festive, anyway. This weekend, I’m with the oldest boy at Camp Arrowhead, roughing it, sort of, in a cabin for the weekend with five other adults and fourteen boys, all of them eating chips and playing Risk or their video games because it’s cold and rainy out and this is their “relaxation campout” because they worked hard at the Christmas tree lot late last year and that’s how Boy Scouts get rewarded, by having a game-filled, tentless campout. It’s how they unwind. How they get silly.

In between a couple of wet hikes, I got the chance to read a few stories from Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection Homesick for Another World, out last year from Penguin. I’ve been seeing people talk about Moshfegh’s work for a while, both this new collection and her novel, Eileen, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Today was the first day I have ever actually read her work, which was foolish, taking way too long for someone who’s made such a mark, who has the kind of word-of-mouth that she’s generated. I’m supposed to be on top of this shit.

I read the first three stories from Homesick for Another World, in order, and loved all of them equally, more or less, but am going to backtrack and write about the lead piece, “Bettering Myself,” because it’s the story that seems most representative of what Moshfegh seems to be doing in this collection, at least in this first hunk. “Bettering Myself “is about a thirty-year-old woman named Miss Mooney, an SAT math prep specialist working at a Catholic high school in New York. The story starts with her declaring that her classroom is on the first floor, near the nuns’ lounge, and that she uses the nuns’ bathroom to puke. A Catholic school-educated boy like me was hooked right off the bat, anything that includes nuns and the defamation of them or their properties. Anyway, Moshfegh also leads us further into the story, because we’re wondering if our hero is puking because she’s got the flu, because she’s got morning sickness, maybe because she’s on chemo, or because she’s been on a bender. It’s a couple of pages before we find out it’s the latter, that Miss Mooney is a boozehound of the highest order, an apt first character for what I know about this collection.

Drinking is just part of Miss Mooney repertoire, as she’s more or less an all-around self-destructive person, someone out to win a medal in self-destructing. On top of her drinking, she engages in random drug use, snorting a friend’s cheap cocaine even though she’s convinced it’s cut with laundry detergent. She engages in random unprotected sex with people she runs into here and there, then discusses it with her students, who never really asked. Miss Mooney isn’t only hurting herself, either. She’s also a terrible teacher, her students painfully inept at math; in order to cover herself, she has, for years, changed their standard test answers to the correct ones, just to keep her job, hundreds of kids looking like they’re better at math than they are. Miss Mooney is on a mission of total self-annihilation, easing the journey with substances. It seems it’ll be a matter of time before Miss Mooney either harms herself irrevocably, or simply loses her job at the Ukrainian Catholic school.

The title to this story, “Bettering Myself,” seems like it’s going to be ironic, but then Miss Mooney hears from her ex-husband, who’s coming to town and wants to meet for dinner and drinks. Our hero sees this as an opportunity. Despite her husband having moved away and moved on—he’s remarried with kids—Miss Mooney goes on a journey of self-improvement. Maybe she wants to reignite the spark. Maybe she’s looking for a one-night stand. Or maybe she just wants her ex to see her in her best state. She quits drinking, firstly, which immediately improves every aspect of her life.  She starts to try at her job. She’s less angry. She even eats a salad.

What happens when Miss Mooney meets her ex for dinner, I won’t reveal here, just to give you something to read. I will say the story surprised me, gave me a satisfying resolution, yet kept up with what I saw as a pattern for these first three stories. Moshfegh writes about fringe people, to say the least, characters who don’t necessarily subscribe to the values that most people subscribe to, nor do they apologize. The second story, “Mr. Wu,” chronicles the courtship between the titular character and a woman who works at the video arcade he frequents. Between attempts to muster the courage to talk to her, Mr. Wu visits a brothel uptown and mistreats prostitutes, having a proclivity for “the dumbest one you have.” In the next story, “Malibu,” a man sets up a date with a stranger by chance. Upon meeting her at her house for dinner, he declares, “Better do it before we eat,” hurrying her into sex, demeaning her before, during, and after. In short, the three protagonists I encountered are self-serving assholes, each more of an asshole than the one before.

What makes Moshfegh so good, so popular, as far as I can figure, is how well she handles voice, her characters not only uncaring and unrelenting, but completely oblivious to just how horrible of people they are. The guy in “Malibu” clearly cannot stand the woman who’s invited him into her home, yet he fucks her, insults her, then stays to eat her dinner (insulting her again), before leaving abruptly and never speaking to her again. Not once does he show a shimmer of regret, mostly because he’s not aware of there being anything to regret, anything to apologize for. He’s just wired that way. Mr. Wu can’t understand why the arcade woman isn’t attracted to him. And Miss Mooney doesn’t once wonder what will happen to her students when they move on, dumber than when they met her.

Several images and themes reoccur in the stories, a couple of characters suffering from bad acne, a couple of them favoring anal sex, two more with inexplicable rashes, the sort of overlap that helps connect these stories on a visceral level. Yet, even with all the ugliness, the stories have a free-wheeling, fun pace to them, precisely because the protagonists don’t give a shit, move from vice to vice without batting an eye. It’s entertaining, I surmise, to watch people in short stories destroy their lives, take others down with them, because they’re not real people, just characters in stories. Are there people like this in the real world? Sure. I don’t want to meet them. Or be in their wake.

But I’d love to hear about it, especially if Ottessa Moshfegh is the one doing the telling.

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“Least Resistance” by Wayne Harrison

I’m pretty sure today is Friday, but I’m not 100%. Really, I just had to look at a calendar to find out the day of the week: That’s how blissful this break time has been. Reading, writing, cooking, eating, and having massive Nerf gun battles with my boys. I know that I’m supposed to do stuff to make money, but, you know, if I could sustain my life—pay my bills, eat, travel, etc.—and not work? I would do that in a heartbeat.

Today is the … third? … day in a row that I’ve done a post and I’m really enjoying these new books. For one, it’s a relief to read something that’s not on 8.5 x 11″ white paper, things that need to write on with a pen. Maybe I’m still relaying wisdom and commentary for these posts, but at least it’s a change of pace: It’s not like Samantha Hunt or Meagan Cass are going to go back to their stories and revise because of anything I’ve said. That takes a little pressure off me. Plus, that white paper. Ugh.

Secondly, three books in three days have produced perhaps the three most different books I’ve read in any stretch, as Hunt and Cass’s books had their own particular aesthetics (described in those posts), and today’s focus, Wayne Harrison, is no different. Hunt’s stories are elegant masterpieces, all over the place in terms of perspective and theme. Cass’s ceaseless imagination make for an eclectic and fun ride. Harrison, however, is more of a callback to previous styles, more traditional stories in both telling and structuring. I won’t go so far to compare his work to Carver’s (which is so easy to do), but certainly, I thought of Carver’s direct contemporaries here, Tobias Wolff and especially Larry Brown. In any case, Harrison writes a solid, mean-ass story.

I read a few stories from Harrison’s Wrench, the most recent winner of the New American  Fiction Prize from New American Press. Since they were all solid, I could have written about any of them, and almost wrote about the title story, “Wrench,” though I’m going with the lead story instead. “Least Resistance” is a piece that back in the day was in The Atlantic and Best American Short Stories. I’m not sure if Harrison is “known” for a story, but if he was, this would probably be it, right? (And note, I’m pointing this out because I wish I was “known” for a story, for something as high profile as “Least Resistance” has perhaps been for Harrison.)

“Least Resistance” is the story of Justin, an almost-nineteen mechanic working in the garage of a regionally, and possibly nationally, famous hotrod guru, Nick Campbell. Nick inherited the business from an uncle some years back and moved with his wife, Mary Ann, from Oregon to take over. Magazines write stories about Nick’s prowess and middle-aged tough guys come in with their Iroc-Zs and Chargers to have Nick install upgrades, thousands of dollars to get a sweeter-sounding engine or a few more MPH. Justin admires the heck out of Nick, workships him, in fact, and is becoming his star pupil, leaping over Sammy, an older, more temperamental, and simpler guy.

Good setup for a story—don’t read too many set in garages (more on that soon)—but Harrison immediately complicates matters by the end of page two when he reveals that Justin has been carrying on with Mary Ann on his off days, fornicating on the living room sofa when they know Nick can’t leave the garage. Mary Ann, the older, wiser, and forbidden lover, has Justin smitten, despite some serious rules, like only doing it missionary-style and Justin never, ever entering Nick and Mary Ann’s bedroom. Still, Justin gets to spend his days frolicking with his boss’s wife, staying naked for hours on end, because, well, they’re going to keep going at it and clothes would only get in the way. For an eighteen year old, one apparently without scruples, it’s a fantasy come true.

Does Justin’s infidelity with his idol’s wife have anything to do with Nick’s recent fuck-ups? As of late, Nick has had a lot of rechecks come in, meaning those custom jobs guys pay him a lot of money to execute are pulling back into the garage, something pinging here, something leaking there. To me, who can change a tire and that’s about it, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to these gear heads, Nick might as well have pissed in their cup holders. Soon, Nick’s reputation goes from go-to to nil, putting this business, livelihood, and marriage in jeopardy. The tension just gets thicker when Nick calls Justin, asking him about another botched job, and Justin is literally on top of his wife. Because this is a story, something’s got to give, right?

There’s more complications to come before any dam breaks, before we reach any sort of climax or resolution. I won’t reveal any of that here, though, as I want to leave something for you to discover. I will point out, however, that Harrison really sells the mechanic stuff, listing endless adjustments, ailments, and conditions that make it seem like a real mechanic is telling the story—and for good reason, because Harrison worked as a mechanic for five years before settling into life as a writer and professor (with a stop-off as a prison guard in between). One writing rule I have is never try to write from a military POV, as there’s no way that I, who has never served, could ever convince anyone I knew what I was talking about—veterans can smell and civilian poser a million miles away. The same could be said for mechanic stories. Maybe that’s what reminds me of Larry Brown, a fireman-turned-writer, his authentic-sounding fireman stories. That’s why I focus on middle-aged dorks in my fiction: Air-tight legitimacy. I got the street cred dripping off me, left and right.

Three stories into Wrench, I’m a fan of Wayne Harrison’s work, solid tales about working-class dudes trying to make their way … despite the fact they try their hardest to fuck things up. Harrison’s stories are about people earnestly trying to change, and from what I’ve seen, they do, in some ways, as trying hard will often get a result. These stories are existential in that way, Harrison’s protagonists sincere but limited, victims of their own choices, their own limitations, but also of the choices others make, of their predicaments. I found myself rooting for these heroes, wanting them to win out, but by the third story, had the distinct feeling they wouldn’t. That’s the world Harrison writes about, a world that’s a helluva place to visit, especially when led by such a talented guide.

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“The All-Mutant Soccer Team” by Meagan Cass

Hello there, Story366 loyalists! Look at me, posting two days in a row. It’s like 2016 all over again … if I just did this 364 more times. Won’t be doing that, but as mentioned in yesterday’s post on Samantha Hunt, this winter break free-time-a-thon is like the best thing in the world. I mean, it’s kind of like summer, only for one month, and, well, colder. I suppose there’s also more urgency to get things done over winter break than summer break, as there’s less time, but there’s also the end of the year/start of the year dynamic, me trying to get in as many posts as I can in 2017. Today is #16 on the year—far less than 366—and even if I finished as strongly as possible, I’d still only end up with 19 for 2017. So, not even the once-a-week schedule that I’d planned, but hey, we do what we can.

What kind of gets me about not doing more posts this year is that it means I haven’t read as many books, or as many new books, and going back to the start of this blog, that was always my original goal: read as many new books and discover as many new writers as I could. In a normal, blogless year, I’ve more than done that so far—I think all 16 entries in 2017 have been on new collections—but there’s certainly many more that I haven’t cracked, acquired, let alone heard of. After being ultra-caught up on the world of contemporary short fiction at the end of 2016, I’m yet again behind. Luckily, there’s all kinds of lists out there that at least tell me what I’ve missed, such as this from Paper Darts, a best-of for collections for 2017. and then there’s always the reliable Dan Wickett at Emerging Writers Network; Dan keeps a list of all the story collections that come out every year, so he’s kind of like that set of World Book Encyclopedias that was on the shelf in all my parochial school classrooms, at hand when I needed him (and often taken for granted).

The important thing is I’m enjoying collections now and enjoyed the heck out of one today, ActivAmerica by Meagan Cass, out from the University of North Texas Press as the most recent winner of their Katherine Anne Porter Prize last year. I’ve read a bevy of stories by Cass—she’s widely published in journals—and I’m happy that she has the collection out that she deserves. And she certainly delivers with this debut.

I read six stories in preparation for this post, a mix of longer/regular-sized stories and shorts, and liked everything I read. Cass has the ability to come up with weird and wonderful concepts, surely, such as today’s feature, “The All-Mutant Soccer Team,” but can also bend a realistic story, about more or less average people, into something peculiar and engaging as well. An example of this is the title story, “ActivAmerica,” about a middle-aged superstore employee engaged in a nationwide health program, basically making her run a mile a day, every day. Cass has the ability to pull her reader into her concept rather quickly, making each story an exciting adventure into a clear, fully realized world. She has some overlap in themes—people seem to get cancer in a lot of her stories—and they all seem to take place in and around Chappaqua, New York. Overall, though, this was the most fun I’ve had with a book in a while, as Cass was able to dazzle me with her creativity, characterization, and settings over and over again.

“The All-Mutant Soccer Team” had me thinking of the X-Men and that kind of mutant going in, but in this story, Cass is writing about the kind of mutant that results from too much nuclear waste in the local lake, nuclear waste that has turned everyone’s skin green or their teeth a glowy blue or has given kids flippers instead of hands. The corporation responsible won’t pay for the clean-up, but instead agrees to pay half of everyone’s medical bills. The logical answer, of course, is for everyone to move, but then we wouldn’t have a story, would we? Plus, the take-what’s-coming-to-you attitude of the people in this town plays into their identity, plays into the plot of the story, too: It’s easy to believe that people, roots down, will just bite the bullet, make the best of a situation, rather than face the horrors of moving, starting new lives elsewhere. In that way, this story serves as a pretty obvious metaphor for stagnation, why anybody who lives in any shitty place doesn’t just move to a nicer place.

The story is focused on this eleven-year-old kid who goes to middle school and plays on the soccer team coached by his dad. Cass seems to be poking at something else here, as the soccer team is where all the mutated kids end up, along with the geeks and the home-schooled kids, as the cool, healthy, non-mutant kids play the more popular sports, football and basketball and cheerleading and the like. Not having gone to a school that had soccer—plus, I hate soccer—I can imagine this is how many school’s soccer teams are assembled (though in reality, soccer players are excellent athletes and have simply endeared themselves to the metric system of team sports), a bunch of outcasts and mismatches and leftovers. Literally, though, these kids are monsters, and instead of A.V. club or flag corps, Cass sticks them on the soccer team.

Anyway, the problem with the all-mutant soccer team is that nobody wants to play them. Of course, nobody will travel to play them at home—hey, another metaphor, the way the richer suburban schools never wanted to come to the poorer suburbs when I was in school, too afraid they’d all get shot as they filed off the bus—so they get some road games, but by the time this story gets going, nobody really wants them on their fields, either. One school even says they’d like to see more tests done, you know, just to be safe, that mutation isn’t contagious. Because the mutant kids are the protagonists, Cass’s own Bad News Bears, we feel sorry for them, see them as those ragtag underdogs that just want their shot.

That’s as far as I’ll go with the plot, as really, for a regular-sized story (or non-short), “The All-Mutant Soccer Team” isn’t that long. Cass also keeps the action moving quickly. Amidst all the games and canceled games and mutantism, however there’s still this kid, this narrator, and there we get another call-out, this one to sports story conventions, his dad a real jack ass, an overbearing coach who runs the poor little mutants to death because he thinks it builds character (and leg muscles). The climax of this story involves the dad, but really, the story sits with this kid, this mutant—one who knows cancer is just one checkup away—who has to deal with his condition, his dad, and being an eleven-year-old kid in America, flippers or hands or whathaveyou.

ActivAmerica is filled with stories like this, character sketches that take place in fantastic worlds, be they filled with mutants, ghosts, orphans, or divorcées, anyone on the fringe who has to overcome an extra pile of shit because they feel just a bit different. It’s a terribly fun collection to read, the scope of Cass’s imagination and heart both seemingly limitless.

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“Beast” by Samantha Hunt

Happy Wednesday, Story366 enthusiasts! Right now I’m in that blissful time post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s where the world kind of stands still. I’m off from teaching. Karen is off from teaching. My kids are out of school. There’s no shopping or baking or wrapping. Me and the boys sleep until ten every morning and stay up way too late at night. We nap. We eat leftover Christmas food for our meals and venture to finish off the Christmas cookies. We have nowhere to be. Most everyone we know is either out of town or offline. And it’s freaking cold outside, in the low twenties at the high, prompting us inside, away from adventure, away from ambition. We have spent a few days doing anything we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. I’ve read books, watched Netflix, Nerf-gun battled my sons, and not cared what time it is. Is there a better time to be an academic or an artist?

At some point, I have to turn this freedom, this unencumbered time, into words on the page, finish at least one of the three stories I’ve started, as, you know, this feeling of euphoria, of free time, is what we writers crave. During any given semester, I fight and claw for the energy to write, also when I fight and claw for the time—energy and time have to align, and that’s tough to do, as often as a solar eclipse or some comet passing by our atmosphere. Still, I manage; stories get written. Over breaks like this, with zero excuses, we’re supposed to produce like German factories, right? Literally, I think that’s why I get a month off between semesters, so I can conjure the written word, build my vita, bring esteem to my department. Karen always tells me as I head off to my office, “Be brilliant.” She knows this will include me eating, me napping, me reading pointless articles on the internet, me doing whatever I do in my office when kids aren’t vying for our attention. I might also fit in a Story366 post. Then, and only then, will I take a stab at brilliance.

With that in mind, let’s get to Samantha Hunt and her collection The Dark Dark, out from FSG, one of the five collections Karen bought me for Christmas from this very awesome list from Paper Darts, a best-of for collections for 2017. I’ve read stories here and there from Hunt in the past, but haven’t read any of her three novels (I don’t read many novels, so that’s not surprising). I was happy to get a collection of hers—her first—in my hands, experience more of her work, and a bunch of it at once.

To prepare for this post, I read three stories from The Dark Dark, “All Hands,” “Beast,” and “The Yellow,” and could have written about any of them, as all three stories are striking, wonderful pieces of fiction. They’re also an eclectic bunch, with completely different settings, characters, and points of view, unified by the fact they’re written by the same author, but also by how surprised I was by the twists Hunt takes us on , how I couldn’t have predicted how any would proceed. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you, after a couple of pages into each, what any of them were about or would become about. Plot unfolds in these stories, then changes its mind, then rushes toward unlikely endings, or no endings at all. These were some of the more interesting and unique stories I’ve read in a while. I love all three.

Since I have to pick one story, I’m picking “Beast,” as it’s most likely the story I’ll share with my students this coming semester, the story I think they should read, the story I want everyone to read just so I can talk with them about it when they’re done. “Beast” is about an unnamed woman who lives with her husband, reads the paper in bed, and gets a lot of ticks. At least this is what you would think the story is about after a few pages, as this is what happens: Our protagonist lies in bed, reads the paper, thinks about the stories she comes across, and talks to her husband as he pulls ticks out of her skin with tweezers. This isn’t a car chase or a duel or a passionate embrace in the surf, but at the same time, Hunt keeps it interesting with quick back-and-forth—the dialogue is quick, punchy, and fun—and interesting stream-of-conscious narration. One news story is about a man in Minnesota who works like seventy-eight hours a day, plus gives plasma, to put his twin sister through college, which makes our hero think about her own brother, who hung himself years earlier. So, not a lot happens, but we get to know this couple, even envy them, especially when our hero describes her husband, their good run, as luck, she and her friends randomly picking boys in high school, hers the only one a perfect match.

Where’s this story going? On top of being a relationship story, our protagonist reveals, eventually, that every night, when her husband falls asleep, she turns into a deer. Literally, she means it: hooves, pointy face, fur, the whole deal. Since she doesn’t have thumbs, she can’t leave their little house (they live on someone else’s property and pay their way by acting as caretakers, so there’s a little Shining here) because she can’t turn the knob on the door. So she waits, as a deer, until morning, when she turns back into her human self and then she and her husband resume their normal lives. (And now I’m thinking back to a detail in the first sentence, one that pegs her as nude every night in bed, which now makes a lot of sense—pajamas would pose a serious deer problem.)

Our hero swears that any day now, she’s going to tell her hard-working and loyal husband that she’s turning into a deer every night because … sooner or later he’ll wake up and find out for himself; the fact he keeps a loaded rifle in the house adds a few degrees to the tension. In the meantime, Hunt takes us through a few nights where she talks about her tick bites (which also make more sense), discusses musicals, thinks about a deer-fucker named Pete she remembers from childhood, and oh, right, deals with the affair she’s had (or maybe is still having) with a guy named Erich, who calls her and announce the degree to which they’ll fornicate. Note: The deer transformations seem to have begun right after the affair began, but nothing more is made of that, so we have to wonder about the sorta-obvious connection. Is Erich a weredeer? That’s one question, surely, but another: Is she really turning into a deer, or is it some weird mid-life crisis, some manifestation of guilt?

I won’t answer these questions here, as like I said, there’s more twists and turns on the way, nothing I could have predicted or would spoil for you. Not that I was predicting anything, anyway, as I was too lost in the prose, in the story, be it the twin brother anecdote or the Pete anecdote, or this couple’s familiar back and forth, two people in love despite what’s happened, what still will happen. I liked getting to know these people and could have read about them for pages and pages, the deer detail just an added bonus.  “Beast” is such solid fiction, in every sense, I don’t think me describing could do it justice. This is definitely one I recommend you check out for yourself—I can’t wait to see my students’ faces the day we talk about it.

The other stories I read in The Dark Dark had similar effects, one about a Coast Guard officer and another about a guy who moves back in with his parents, then runs over a neighborhood dog; if neither of these descriptions sound all that promising, trust, me, that’s just the basic set-up for what turn into really awesome, surprising, and exciting pieces of fiction. I suspect all the stories in The Dark Dark are like this, which makes me want to dive back in and find out. I haven’t read as many books this year as I did last year—few people have—but without question, Samantha Hunt’s will end up near the top of my list for 2017.

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“Friday Afternoon” by T.D. Johnston

Hello, Story366 enthusiasts! As promised last Friday, I’m going to be doing these posts again and more often, though I really didn’t think it would take me a whole week to post another. I can insert of story about grading and finals and Christmas shopping and Christmas baking, but I’m sure you now that story, so go ahead and add the specific details for yourself. Today specifically I did get out to the mall—we needed a picture of the boys with Santa, as we have one for each year since the oldest was born—and that was of course a nightmare. Because I’m stupid, I have to go back out one more time, and … well, I’m stupid and I have go back to the mall one more time.

It doesn’t seem like it’s been a week since I wrote about Kim Chinquee, but it has. In that time, Kim has announced another new story collection coming out next year, which is the first a two-book contract, so plenty more Kim Chinquee on its way. I won’t claim that Story366 had anything to do with that, but if I wanted to make a case for a Story366 bump, I have my case study.

I still made it back from the mall in time to hide the gifts I bought—I’ll wrap them later, when everyone else is asleep, while I watch Bright, which has gotten such terrible reviews today that I’m morbidly excited to experience it for myself. I also finally got to T.D. Johnston‘s collection, Friday Afternoon and Other Stories (Battersea Books, 2016), which I’ve had for forever and was happy to finally crack. I’d never read anything by Johnston before, so this is one of those times I went into a collection with zero preconceptions, which I kind of like, as I like surprises.

What’s not a surprise is that I’m choosing the title story to focus on for this post, which I tend to do. “Friday Afternoon” is the story of Bryce, a guy in a BMW who’s trying to get to his father-in-law’s birthday party in Charlotte. The story starts with Bryce riding along a two-lane highway, stuck behind a pickup truck that has the audacity to be going five MPH less than the speed limit (it also sports a “Jesus Saves” bumper sticker, an important detail). We soon find out that to Bryce, this is a serious offense, as we hear through narration and his thoughts (by the way, thoughts are given to us in italics, in separate paragraphs, and occur quite often) that being late to this party will make him look bad; Bryce’s father-in-law the type of father-in-law who has never accepted Bryce, which sucks for Bryce, because Bryce works for his father-in-law, selling decorative floor coverings. Not that Bryce is a victim here: He’s pretty much an asshole, speeding along in his Beamer, waving his arms, and insulting the other drivers on the road—especially the driver of the pickup—calling them rednecks and goobers. The guy in the pickup with the Jesus Saves sticker eventually becomes Goober, which is one of those weird life coincidences, as I ate a box of Goobers tonight as I worked on this post:

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In any case, Bryce seems like a throwback from the eighties, hair slicked back, his car’s ridiculousness on par with his disdain for “regular” people. Johnston even incites Gordon Gecko, so yeah, that’s the kind of guy Bryce is, stuck behind a Jesus-loving, pickup-driving good ‘ol boy in North Carolina.

The story takes a turn when Bryce attempts to pass Goober in the left lane (probably my personal least-favorite thing to do in the world), which is what we’re supposed to do when behind slower traffic instead of bitching about it. The catch is there’s a chicken truck coming straight at him in the other lane (adding to the idiom “playing chicken”), Goober right next to him, leaving nowhere for him to go. In a flash of white light, Bryce closes his eyes, waits for the inevitable pain that will proceed his death, still angry at everyone but himself.

Instead of death, Bryce somehow makes it through, though Goober and his pickup are wrecked on the side of the road, the truck on its side in a ditch. Bryce’s conscience tries telling him to turn around, to see if Goober needs help, but Bryce—still running late for that party—convinces himself that everyone is fine, everything is fine, and drives on. Bryce, faced with a choice, chooses the self-serving.

Things really go south for Bryce immediately after when his tire pops and he’s forced to the side of the road. His phone—which seems to be the old car phone type of phone, not anything cellular—can’t get ahold of AAA. Because he’s a fucking knob, he won’t get out of the car and change the tire himself, so he’s kind of stuck there. To make things even worse, Goober, in his pickup, pulls up behind him and wants to help, insists on changing the tire. This would be a windfall of good luck, except, you know, Bryce had just run him off the road and left him to die. So, things are tense

“Friday Afternoon” is a rather long story, weighing in at thirty-five pages or so, meaning Johnston gives himself the space to let things develop. The tire-changing scene takes its time, as there’s all kinds of tension between Bryce and Wilson Emblen (Goober’s real name), Bryce torn between wanting Wilson to leave and wanting Wilson to change his tire. Bryce’s answer to all this? Give Wilson twenty bucks to hurry the hell up. If Johnston hadn’t established Bryce as a class-A piece of shit, this pretty much puts him over the top.

At this point, we’re only about a third of the way through the story, so there’s a whole lot left that I won’t go into. I will say that Wilson does realize that Bryce is the one who forced him off the road, and I reveal that Wilson takes the tire iron to Bryce’s head and dumps him in his trunk. From there, you’ll have to read “Friday Afternoon” to find out what happens next.

I enjoyed this selection because of all the plot that Johnston is able to cram into one story, thirty-five pages or not, the pacing always swift and the surprises always aplenty: I never knew what was going to happen and kept reading to find out where things were going next. For such a long piece, “Friday Afternoon” is really well paced, steady and always paying off with a new character, a change of scene, something really messed up that I couldn’t have predicted. Johnston uses those italicized thoughts to his advantage, as Bryce never says what he’s thinking, making the inner conflict as serious as the outer (though Johnston employs this exact same technique in another story I read, “The Guest”). As a way to depict unreliability, this is as effective a method as any, if not a bit intrusive at times.

There’s also some serious religious overtones in this story, starting with the “Jesus Saves” sticker and running at a sprint from there. Wilson comes off as an emissary of God in a lot of ways, and after a while, every element of the story plays the part of a possible metaphor. There’s a Last Supper, lots of talk of nameless merchants, and the title, “Friday Afternoon,” almost definitely referring to the time Christ spent on Calvary. I’d bet my First Communion rosary that “Wilson Emblen” is an anagram for something like “John the Baptist” or maybe “Sleen Ionblow,” and if I had the energy, I’d spread the letters out on a piece of paper and try to figure it out (I don’t).

There’s a real urgency to all the stories I read from Friday Afternoon, as Johnston seems to have a plan in each story, plans that more or less involve redeeming undesirable protagonists. Johnston also seems to have fun with his stories and fun with fiction-writing techniques, as he’s not afraid to employ things like thought-separating italics or questionable realities when he needs them to tell his tales. I can tell from his book, from interacting with him a bit online, and from what his teachers and friends say about him in his blurbs that Tim Johnston really loves to write stories. That enthusiasm certainly rears its head in Friday Afternoon.

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“The Top Shelf” by Kim Chinquee

Well, hey there, stranger! It’s a been a while since I’ve posted on Story366—May 9, to be exact—which in my calculation is over six months ago. I never planned on taking such a big break, and have, just about every day, thought about picking up a new collection and doing a post. I just … didn’t. I’ve even had today’s book in my laptop case since summer, since before a big family vacation, meaning this book went with me to a dozen or so states without me cracking the spine. Again, I never foresaw such a leave of absence, but hey now, since I was 366 for 366 last year, whoever said this year is about planning?

I come to you today somewhat because my grades for the fall semester have been turned in, meaning I’m embarking on a month off from my professor gig. I’d like to get a good start on things, set up some good habits, and since I don’t think I’ll be traveling this next month—Christmas in Missouri!—I should be able to settle into some kind of routine. I have a lot of collections to read and write about, so I hope to do more of these before the spring semester starts (and if you have a new story collection you’d like me to write about here, please drop me a line so I can tell you how to get me that book).

Oh, I also got the calendar alert that it’s Kim’s birthday tomorrow, though I thought originally it said it was today, which lit a fire under me, putting the idea my head to do this post.

It’s tempting, after so much time away, to play catch up, tell my Story366 readers where I’ve been, but I don’t think anyone’s too concerned about that. Still, here’s a rundown of my activities since May 9: I started running every day. I dedicated a lot of time to fixing up our house, especially the outside, which resulted in a killer garden. The fam and I headed west for two weeks, visiting six National Parks, Disneyland sandwiched in-between. I worked at thirty-one Cubs’ games, including two rounds of playoffs. I went camping with the Boy Scouts a couple of times and have found myself in a minor leader role. I can vividly picture what my wife, kids, and cat look like. I make eggs every morning.

I’ve led a full life.

Back to short stories.

I’ve known Kim Chinquee and her work for a long time now. Both of us are alum of the University of Illinois, which is how I think we started talking to each other. Both of us were on the job market at relatively the same time (probably in direct competition for a while). Both of us publish in literary magazines fairly often. Both of us go to AWP every year and run into each other. So, I know Kim, you know, from the block (but not from writer’s block). Along the way, I’ve had the pleasure of reading quite a few of her shorts, short stories, and books, so I was more than happy to hear about Veer coming out this past May (from Ravenna Press) and to obtain a copy for this project.

Veer is a book of shorts, save one normal-length story, and is cut into five parts. The first three parts have a long series of shorts, the fourth part is comprised entirely of that normal-length story, then Part Five has more shorts. I read a handful of stories from each section, wanting to get a good feel of the entire book to write this post, and tried to figure out how Chinquee split things up. At first glance, it seems like the stories in the first three sections are thematically linked to each other—most all of them involve sexual encounters of some kind—while the final part seems to delve into other notions. If I read the entire book, I could perhaps see the method to her delineations, but I can say this for sure: The stories in each part have appeared in different magazines; the acknowledgments on the colophon tell that the stories in Part One were in Noon, the stories in Part Two in Denver Quarterly, etc.; from what I can surmise, that means that all thirty-nine stories—39!—from Part One appeared in Noon. Either Diane Williams really likes Chinquee’s work (the likely case) or Kim gave her a kidney (hard to tell without asking). Either way, I’ve never seen a book sectioned off by where the stories (or poems or whathaveyou) were published—though that would make sense if there’s a deeper connection I’m missing.

A collection that features so many stories makes it hard to choose just one to write about, so I’ll cop out and go with the lead piece, “The Top Shelf.” This story, at less than three pages, sticks in my head for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it features one of the longer narratives of any of the pieces I’ve read. Secondly, it’s got a weirdish premise—mother and daughter pick up guys together at a bar—and I like weirdish. Lastly, it incorporates Chinquee’s themes as well as any other story, so it’s kind of easy to talk about.

“The Top Shelf” is about a woman who’s about to ship off to Basic Training, so her mom takes her out to a bar for some drinks, even though she’s not old enough, Mom convincing the bouncers because she’s a regular (very regular, we find out). Soon—like within half a page down—Mom has eased up to an older gentleman named George, while George’s pal, the equally older Tom, takes a shine to our protagonist and narrator. Before we know it, George invites the ladies to his hotel room for some drinks and the ladies oblige.

From there, things get heated and get heated quickly. George makes some bloody Marys, he and Mom start to get busy on his bed, so Tom suggests to our hero that they take a walk, give the new lovers the room to themselves. At this point, I’m thinking that Tom is maybe more of a decent guy, i.e., he’s not going to try to bed this young woman because, you know, ewww. But I’m wrong: Tom and the protagonist go at it in the stairway as soon as they leave the room, and, well, yeah. That gives away an awful lot, but as I said, this is a short and these early stories feature sexual encounters, so, if you want surprise, there’s seventy or so other stories in the book to read to find out if the characters did it with each other or not.

Of course, to say this story is about the sexual encounter would be trivializing Chinquee’s talent, style, and efforts. Sure, most of the protagonists in the stories I read had sex over the course of the story, but I think Veer isn’t really about the sex, but the repercussions of the sex. No, scratch that: I can’t say this story, or this book, is about what happens to people who have questionable sexual encounters, as really, the stories are too short for Chinquee to reveal that; the author tends to end on an image, a line of dialogue, a turn of a more subtle nature. We don’t know what happens to the woman telling us her story in “The Top Shelf” after she and her mother leave the Holiday Inn, after she goes off to Basic, what she thinks about, how the encounter with Tom affects her, short term or long term. I think the point of this book is that we don’t have to: After so many stories featuring regrettable encounters—and this stairwell tryst is certainly one of the more consensual affairs—the book seems to be about how easy it is for these incidents to happen, how common they are, and Chinquee gets that point across not only in the individual stories, but through repetition, telling us about them, time after time after time. It’s really easy for a young woman to get coerced, be it via rape or this scenario here in “The Top Shelf,” than it’s pleasurable to say. And here in 2017, with the daily revelations about our politicians, journalists, and celebrities committing so many atrocities, can any book have been more relevant, a more fitting choice with which to jump back into this project?

Still, that’s not to say that every character in every story is a victim. They’re not—it would be ignorant to paint every woman who has sex as a victim, as certainly, many of Chinquee’s characters make a choice. And some of the stories don’t even involve sex. I should also mention that in several of the stories, Chinquee herself seems to be the narrator, referring to herself in the most direct metafictional ways, as Kim Chinquee. After reading twenty-five stories, though, I see a theme, the feel that I take from Veer.

I’ve always been a fan of Kim Chinquee’s writing, not only her stories, but her technical proficiency, her imagery, the way she strings together one poignant sentence after another. Veer is a powerful book, and oftentimes, a sad book, but it’s gorgeously written, and has been worth carrying around in my bag all these months (as if it’s my Catcher in the Rye, minus the assassination attempts). Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you’ve read Chinquee before. Whether you have or haven’t, Veer is an experience, a treat.

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“The Law of Strings” by Steven Gillis

Hello, Story366! Back at you for Short Story Month after taking the weekend off. Got a lot of yard work done, ate some good meals, saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, watched the Cubs, including that eighteen-innning marathon last night (none of this Cubs business turned out well, by the way), and generally avoided grading before the big dump that’s coming this week. So, no short story blogging, and because this isn’t 2016, I’m quite okay with that. Heck, if I don’t get this done and posted by midnight, I won’t even hate myself (Note: It’s the next morning and me and I are on relatively good terms).

Today, I read from Steven Gillis‘ most recent story collection, The Law of Strings, from Atticus Books. I should reveal here that Steve and I have a pretty intimate relationship, in that Steve is one of the co-founders of Dzanc Books, where my first collection, Elephants in Our Bedroom, appeared back in 2009. On top of being one of the gents (along with Dan Wickett, a statue of whom I have in my back yard, fountain-style) who launched my career, he also personally edited the manuscript, making me kill my darlings, axe my babies, harpoon my pets, and poison my beloved. He made me a better writer, left me with a better book. So, FYI, as you read this glowing review.

I realized it kind of sucks for me, in that light, to not have read this book before, but hey, that’s all fixed now, right? Right. I sat on my front porch, tried to catch my newly planted flowers in the act of  growing, and really dove in, trying to get a good handle on what it is that Gillis does with the form. From what I can tell, Gillis is an ephemeral storyteller, not afraid to experiment with ideas, as well as voice, narration, and structure, and to make references to smart people-type things like physics and philosophy. On top of all that, the stories I read were all very matter-of-factly told, almost metafictionally, as if the narrators knew they were telling stories, or at least that they were trying to explain something about their characters, something much more deliberate than an average narrator. I liked being told so much as I read, the effect that this stylistic choice induced, as if Gillis were trying to take a step back, remove the narrator from the action as much as possible, but still maintain authority. Overall, this choice makes Gillis’ stories sound unique, giving Gillis his own brand, his own style. In that way, this collection is both tight and unique.

In choosing a story to write about, I’m heading to my default, the title story, “The Law of Strings,” quite a solid piece of fiction. “The Law of Strings” is about Lange, a physics grad student who is dating/lives with another physics grad student, Eva. The story opens with Lange observing Eva, who is sleeping in their bed, tied down with string, why we’re not told. Next scene, we back up to a couple of nights, when the pair are at a party and Eva is being courted by a man named Jayson, a courting that’s going quite successfully. Eva is clearly intrigued with Jayson, first chatty then handsy, and Lange knows it—and Eva knows he knows it. On their way home, their relationship fluxing in dire straits, Eva makes a suggestion, the one that leads to us to that opening scene, her tied to their bed with string.

More or less, this is Eva’s plan: If Lange wants to keep her around, and she wants to stay, she’d better tie herself down, make it impossible for her to leave, as wandering bodies will wander if not tethered by some force. Once Eva’s properly secured, Lange watches her sleep—he’s not allowed on the bed with her—contemplating exactly what his course of action is. All of this tying up is Eva’s idea, but, you know, it’s resoundingly odd and Lange knows it—what’s Eva playing at. This is where that distant narration comes in handy, us believing all of this because it’s coming from this really exacting, neutral perspective.

The story is more than Eva tied to the bed, as eventually, logistics take over: Eva has to eat and go to the bathroom. Then, Lange and Eva’s weekend takes turns, some logical, some unpredictable, leading up to a satisfying denouement, which I won’t discuss here. However, that’s just the plot, leaving much to be said about Gillis’ approach, his themes, and how the story reads. A lot of this has to do with physics somehow, or at least that’s how Gillis plays it, basic theories that I didn’t understand in high school or college, and don’t fully understand here. Lange and Eva are physicists, remember, so Lange incites a lot of physicists—to name one, in the first paragraph, there’s reference to a book by Jerzy Kowalsky-Glikman, who, according Wikipedia, is indeed a physicist—and without reading a whole lot of stuff I still wouldn’t understand, I’ll just concede that it’s important. But it’s not only physics at work here, as there’s just as much psychology, if not more, making the story so interesting, not to mention disturbing.

Steven Gillis is a publisher, editor, and author, and he does all of them rather well. I’m glad I got to read from The Law of Strings today, that I got to know these stories, to see what  Steve does, time after time, in this form. These are challenging but rewarding stories, but they’re also weird and funny. I enjoyed this book a lot.

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