“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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“The Real Natasha” by Michael Leone

Happy Friday, Story366! So glad to be here finally, at the end of the semester! Welcome to day 1 of the best summer of my life! Grades are turned in and summer is here! I’m going to write a novel, get in shape, get my house in shape, plant the best garden ever, spend a ton of time with my family, travel the world, and maybe even change the world while I’m traveling it. So much is possible on the first day of summer break!

Only, for some reason, MSU is the only school that has not only one but two more weeks left before summer—a week of classes and then finals. I’m not done until two Fridays from now, with a whole lot of grading and grade-figuring in-between. Why is that all my teacher friends are talking about submitting final grades today, about leaving town, about really enjoying Cinco de Mayo, and I have two weeks left? Why?! We did have an extra week for the winter break this year—which I wouldn’t trade, not even now—but why are we going so late? I’m going to be turning in grades and handing out trick-or-treat candy at the same time, surely some kind of record.

Okay, but enough bitching. I’m sure all of my readers who don’t get four months off a year—to pursue scholarly endeavors, of course—feel sorry for me and my impending two weeks of work. I’ve made mention to people of how truncated my breaks feel in the pat, people like my siblings, and they’ve pointed out what a spoiled ass hole I am as they get like two weeks off a year and most of that time is spent at dentist appointments and wakes. But hey, that’s what siblings are for when you’re the youngest of seven. So, bring on the last week of classes. Bring on finals. Bring on grading. Bring on trick-or-treaters.

For today’s post, I read from Michael Leone’s 2017 collection The Real Natasha, out from Braddock Avenue Books. This makes five 2017 collections this week, books I’ve been assembling since the start of the year. I picked up The Real Natasha at the Braddock Avenue table at AWP and have itching to get inside since. Reading a few stories, I see the wait was worth it, as Leone writes fun, innovative tales, including “Minutes,” a story written in the form of English Department meeting minutes, as recorded by an angry, NTT faculty member who puts a very particular spin on the meeting’s proceedings. The form—actual outlined minutes—plus the I-didn’t-see-that-coming ending, makes it a piece I foresee me sharing with students for semesters to come. For whatever reason, though, I’m writing about the title story, “The Real Natasha,” instead, as I find it compelling in another way.

“The Real Natasha” is about this unnamed protagonist who is in love, in love with Natasha. She is his dream woman, accepting all of his faults—impressed, even, that he’s a New Jersey hot dog-eating champion—while shockingly having the exact same interests —amazing because she’s a nubile beauty from the Ukraine. Still, Leone presents the relationship as a match made in heaven. How nice for these characters, for this narrator, you might be thinking as you begin reading, a love story.

Before long, however, this unconditional love appears too good to be true, especially when we find out that the relationship has existed exclusively online. And that Natasha’s visit to America—to marry our hero, of course, be with him forever—is delayed by several factors, though nothing that several thousand dollars, wired directly to her, can’t fix. By this time, all of it is more than fishy, and by the time Natasha disappears—her phone number and email are suddenly disconnected—any reader can figure out that our boy’s been had.

What’s great about Leone’s story, however, isn’t this revelation, but instead how committed Leone is to keeping this Romeo in the dark. After our boy gets fleeced and still can’t get ahold of Natasha, he takes the only logical next step: He flies to the Ukraine to track Natasha down. Once there, having spent another fortune on his ticket, he goes to Natasha’s address and what do you know, he doesn’t find her; this online charlatan somehow not at the address she gave him, the address to which he’s been sending letters, pictures, money, and his heart. Still, he persists. Outside, he runs into a local tough named Punka, who insists he knows Natasha and can take him to her. They drive outside of the city, to an abandoned field, and as our guy is looking all over, wondering if his Natasha is somehow occupying this abandoned, isolated space, Punka is brandishing a pipe and demanding he take off all his clothes.

I won’t go any further with the plot, reveal any more of the humiliations our guy endures, or let you know just how far he’s willing to go to find Natasha, his beloved. Leone is unrelenting, though, in what he’s willing to put this poor sap through, all the time winking at us. That sounds like an unreliable narrator to me, and for sure, this might be the most unreliable narrator in the history of unreliable narrators. There was a point, I have to admit, that I thought to myself, Wow, this is all pretty obviously a scam, but as Leone’s game becomes apparent, I was on board, no matter how long he was going to play it.

I’ve enjoyed all of the new collections I’ve read this week, and Michael Leone’s The Real Natasha is no exception. Leone seems to like to play with all kinds of forms and conventions, all in the name of good fun. I really connected with Leone’s sense of humor, with his ideas, with his world view. This is a damn fine collection, perfect for a Friday with the sun shining, perfect for any day you’re looking for good stories.

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“Now, in the Not Quite Dark” by Dana Johnson

Hey hey, Story366! Coming at you yet again, for a fourth day in a row, with another story, from another collection, by another author. All of this love has been in the name of Short Story Month, but really, some of these books I’ve covered so far this week—Eric Buchner’s and Mariana Enriquez’s, namely—have been on my desk here for a couple of months and I’ve been itching to open them up and read their offerings. The third book on that pile has been Dana Johnson‘s In the Not Quite Darkfrom Counterpoint Press, which I’m covering today, so the three collections burning a hole in my pocket are taken care of—from here on out I’ll just move on to the fifty or so other books on my desk that I also want to read and write about.

Interlude: Story366, as a daily blog in 2016, served in a minor way as a living document of history. Most of that was my own history, me telling you what I’d been up to in my life, with some specific references and passages to things like holidays, world events, and of course, the Cubs’ first World Series victory in 108 years (I ran into Roy Kesey at AWP in DC, after writing about his book the day the Cubs won the Series, and he thanked me for pointing out how much more his story was about the Cubs than he ever realized). I wrote about books. I noted when a celebrity died. And much too often, I commented on the weather.

And sometimes, when it was important, I made notes about politics. I never wanted Story366 to be a political rant, for me to tie any particular author’s book to any particular event, to any day in history, as maybe that’s not fair to their book. Still, if I want this to be a living archive, and I’m going to talk about shit like the weather, what I’m making for dinner, and the Cubs, it seems like I should also take note of when, oh, the House of Representatives fucks all middle and lower-class Americans by passing through a terrible health care bill, one that will just about kill every citizen with existing conditions. I mean, don’t you think I should bring something like that up? Make note in the Comments section if you think I’m off (or on) about this.

In any case, moving on to In the Not Quite Dark. What a book! You know, it’s the end of the semester here at MSU, and yesterday, I passed out a list of terms to my intro students, the vocab list that will be covered on the final. I asked my classes to mark off the terms that they didn’t know so we could talk about them, and one term that came up was “psychic distance.” This wasn’t a term I ever heard in my creative writing classes, not in undergrad or grad school, though over the years, as a writer and editor, I’d read about psychic distance and could certainly tell anyone who asked what it is, what purpose it serves in fiction, and why a fiction writer should know it. Coming to MSU in 2012, I found out it was a much more text-oriented curriculum, fiction vocab lists suddenly a thing when I’d never really encountered them before—in my own workshops, vocab lists were just running mental inventories, things I heard in class, things I picked up and defined via context, nothing I was ever officially tested on; I’d never had a final in a creative writing class, but here, we have finals in every class, and because we’re not going to pass out blue books and have students write stories as time ticks away, a vocab test is the logical alternative. As a result, terms like “psychic distance” and “universal paradox” and “vivid and continuous dream” are now part of my consciousness. That’s good, though: I’m a professor and I should know this shit.

In any case, since talking to my classes yesterday, I have psychic distance on my mind, and maybe that’s why I was thinking about psychic distance while reading Johnson’s stories, as man, she really gets into her characters’ heads. The stories I read from In the Not Quite Dark are what I would dub “ephemeral,” stories that investigate each of their protagonists’ most inner thoughts (i.e., close psychic distance). Put simply, it’s not so much what the characters do—though I loved what happens in these stories, too—but how Johnson depicts what’s going on in their heads. I really enjoyed stories like “The Liberace Museum,” but today I’ll focus on “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” the (mostly) title story, as it’s my favorite of the bunch.

“Now, in the Not Quite Dark” is about Dean, a guy living in LA in an old (circa 1905) building called the Pacific Electric Building, where he hangs out with his mom on the roof, sipping drinks and talking about the things that bother him. That super-close third-person narrator describes Dean as a haunted guy, haunted mainly by people who have left him. When he was a kid, Dean used to get all anxious about people leaving him, whether it was his mom just in the bathroom, or a stranger he met a story he knew he’d never see again. Eventually, those types of departures Dean could handle, but his anxiety matures, Dean spending a lot of time thinking about the people in the world, in his world, who have come and gone. The mailbox captions down in the Pacific Electric lobby, for example, are outdated, but Dean is obsessed by the names, people who used to live in the building, people who moved, people who have long since died. He thinks about them, their last names, and longs for them. Can I name another story or novel in which this type of anxiety is the protagonist’s primary characteristic? No, and that’s why Johnson’s story is sticking with me, her original and creative characterization. Dean seems so real because of this, like someone I know, someone I’ve known all my life.

Dean makes other observations, too, about life and death. His building also happens to double as a generic New York apartment building for the crime drama CSI: New York, the actor Gary Sinise sometimes hanging out on another floor, shooting a scene with a playing-dead actor under a tarp; ironically, during one shoot, a Pacific Electric resident has actually died, so on one floor, actors are pretending to investigate, and just below, real police and a real coroner were doing so on a real corpse. For someone with Dean’s demons, this type of coincidence seems like a mental Christmas, so much to think on, so much to ponder, so much to fear.

Vignettes like this CSI thing inhabit the majority of “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” as Dean and his mom hang out. Johnson presents other characters, other missing persons, such as Sippy, a weird, creepy kid Dean remembers from his childhood, and most notably, the woman who was found dead in the water tower two buildings over. Dean has obsessed over this, as at first, this woman was a citywide missing persons case, on the news non-stop, then discovered so close to Dean, that water tower in full view of his lawn chair, in his sightline the entire time: Dean had been staring at the dead woman, in a way, without knowing it.

At the core, though, this story is about Dean, his relationship with his mother, his relationship with himself. Dean is a guy who has a lot haunting him, but really, he’s okay with that. Worrying about the departed is what Dean does, like a present-day Gabriel Conroy, only it’s not only Michael Furey he’s fretting, everyone and anyone instead.

Dana Johnson has written a collection of top-notch fiction in In the Not Quite Dark, dense, rewarding stories that I enjoyed reading, enjoyed getting to know. Some of the deepest, best characterization I’ve seen, which is saying a lot, these figures staying with me as if I were Dean himself, unable to forget a single one.

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“Things We Lost in the Fire” by Mariana Enriquez

Good evening, Story366! Here we are on Day 3 of Short Story Month and I’m still reading new books and blogging. Hooray for me! Still no promises on doing this every day this month—in fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to do that—but hey, who’s counting?

Third day back and already I’m starting in on the weather, but holy fuck, it’s been raining. And I when I say raining, I mean raining raining, bull-blown thunderstorms and flash flood warnings. Yesterday? Beautiful sunshine. Every other day since forever? Pouring down rain. Right now? Downpour. Roads are closed, events are being canceled, and I actually wore a poncho to campus today. When will the madness end?

But hey, more rain equals more time to sit inside and read, right? High five! I spent a rainy afternoon in my office reading from Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez, her recent collection from Hogarth. Enriquez is an Argentinian writer who writes in Spanish and has for a long time, very successfully, but this is her first collection in English, translated by Megan Mcdowell. As with Eric Puchner and Lesley Nneka Arimah the last couple of days, I’ve not read anything by Enriquez before, but again, that’s now been rectified.

I read three random stories in Things We Lost in the Fire, starting with the title story, then moving around to titles that interested me. I enjoyed “The Intoxicated Years,” about three women who delve deeper and deeper into substances as their friendships evolve. I also hit “No Flesh over Our Bones,” which follows a young girl who finds a skull in an alley and makes it her best friend. For today’s post, I’ll write about that title story, however, as it’s the one that’s sticking with me, though I easily could have written about any of these, as they’re all rather excellent.

“Things We Lost in the Fire” is certainly the most serious story I read from Enriquez’s book, chronicling an unfortunate phenomenon, women lighting themselves on fire in ceremonial protests, protests protesting several incidents of men setting their women on fire. The story begins with a stark description of a character known as subway girl, a burn victim who panhandles through the city subway system, attacked and nearly killed by a psycho boyfriend. Subway girl is as tragic a story as a writer can make up, but Enriquez makes her compelling, too, drawing us in right away.

A second woman’s story follows, a supermodel dating a soccer star—this time, the victim doesn’t survive. Sadly, while both subway girl and the model lie unconscious in the hospital, post-attack, their respective boyfriends tell the police the women set themselves on fire, generally hoping the women die so they don’t get indicted. This is what eventually inspires, ironically, the women to light themselves on fire in protest, the fact that everyone finds it so easy to believe in the first place.

The story is told through the eyes of Silvina, a young woman who witnesses a lot of the horrors of this abuse, both in person (she encounters subway girl regularly) and on TV. Silvina’s mother and mother’s best friend (an aunt-type) become heavily involved in the movement as well, giving aid to the burned women, both before and after they make their crucial choice.

The pure tragedy of “Things We Lost in the Fire” makes it worth telling, but Enriquez gives us a whole lot to think about. What’s most depressing about this story is how easy all of this is to believe, that a patten of abuse like this is possible—not a stretch at all, if you’ve been watching the news—and that it would lead to this sort of statement, this sort of reaction. Maybe it’s the 2017 in me talking, but this story seems terrifyingly real, maybe too real. And that’s why it’s so powerful, why I enjoyed it as much as I did.

Overall, I’m really liking Things We Lost in the Fire, the first of Mariana Enriquez’s books to come to us in English. I look forward to delving into each and every story in this collection. This is a real talent, someone to check out for sure.

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“What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Hey there, Story366! So far so good on me posting every day during Short Story Month. Yesterday got me over a bit of a blogging block, and today? I was eager to jump into a new book, read some new stories, and write (semi-) critically again. It’s an absolutely beautiful day in the Ozarks, too, and as soon as I’m done with this post, I’m headed out with the family for a nice hike, something to get some vitamin A into our blood (if that’s how sunlight works—I have no idea).

Backtracking a bit, not only did I not write a post for two months, but I even divorced myself from looking at the blog, especially the Stats page. Last year, I religiously checked the numbers, wanting to know how many hits I was getting, at what time, trying to figure the best time to post, what my audience was. Two months removed from any new material, I was understandably worried that the blog had gone by the wayside, nobody visiting, that the stats would be way down. Some days, I was sure, would see zero hits. Not the case, I found yesterday, not at all. In fact, the month of March, in which I posted exactly once, on the first day, saw more hits than five months from 2016, months that I was posting every day; April, which had just ended, saw more hits than two of those months, all without a single post, let alone visits from its maker. So, even though I’ve neglected my baby, people are still visiting Story366, in some ways more than ever. In my mind, this has marked this project as an official success: The blog is working as a living archive, which is what I had always envisioned, what I have always wanted. So, thank you, all of you, for visiting, for reading, and for endorsing. Even when I wasn’t.

Today, I dove into a book I bought over the weekend at the Springfield B&N, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, out from Riverhead Books. This is Arimah’s debut effort, and despite one of the stories appearing in The New Yorker and another in my beloved Mid-American Review (after my time there), I hadn’t read her work before. So, in other words, I ran into her book just in time.

I started with the two lead stories, “The Future Looks Good” and “War Stories,” both of which I liked a lot. The former has a really interesting approach to structure and timeframes, unlike anything I’ve read before, while “War Stories” (the one from MAR) features a little girl who takes her father’s tutelage a little too seriously. I then skipped ahead to the title story, as I often do, and found my favorite of the three.

“What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” is set in 2030, after a Chilean mathematician named Francisco Furcal discovers an infinite equation (as in, the equation never ends, like the decimal places of pi) that unlocks the secrets of life. Literally, mathematicians in 2030 can use Furcal’s Formula (what the kids call it) to solve all kinds of human problems. Some mathematicians use it to take away people’s pain. Some use it to teach human flight. Some, including our protagonist, Nneoma, use it to take away people’s sadness. In most cases, Furcal’s Formula and its applications seem to work; like with any medical breakthrough, however, there are side effects, and Furcal’s Formula is no exception.

The story starts, actually, with one of these alleged side effects, as a man, taught to fly using the formula, falls to his death from above the clouds (hence our title). Nneoma knows what this means, that use of the formula will garner a ton of negative press in the media, perhaps affecting her job, her ability to help people. Nneoma is one of the sadness mathematicians, and in a way we don’t really understand (of course we don’t, as it’s not real), she uses this math equation, or a part of it, to assume people’s tragedies upon herself. In this way, Nneoma is kind of a sin eater, only in her case, a bluesy-blues eater. It doesn’t sound like the happiest career, math + depression, but hey, she’s making a difference, and there are people all over the world who have her skill—in fact, another cool thing about this story is that Arimah makes using Furcal’s Formula akin to being able to use the Force: Either you understand and can manipulate the formula or you can’t. One of Nneoma’s side jobs is to search Africa for more people who share her gift (though Arimah is wise enough to avoid midichlorians). Once the guy falls from the sky, the story is basically Nneoma reacting to that, doing her job, hoping she can continue her work.

All of this is set against the backdrop of Nigeria, but actually Biafra, as it’s the future and there’s been another civil war, splitting the countries (Biafra defecting was the cause of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970) officially. Arimah was born in Britain and lives in the U.S., but was raised in Nigeria, so this is her territory, the place and themes that inhabit all the stories I’ve read so far. For me, this is another bonus of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, exposure to this culture, to this history, something I had almost zero knowledge of this morning.

In the end, Nneoma faces problems more immediate to her than some man falling from the sky on the other side of the world. Assuming all of that grief, over decades, is taking its toll, we find out, and might be connected to one colleague’s suicide and another’s disappearance. All in all, there’s a lot going on in “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” impossible, seemingly, for one short story, and I loved reading every word of it. I admire the collection, too, full of challenging language and structures and extremely inventive stories. What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is a tremendous debut, a collection I know I’ll go back to, over and over.

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“Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner

It’s been a while, Story366! To say the least, as it’s been two months—two!—since I last posted at the ol’ story-a-day blog. Sure, I never thought I’d do one every day again, not since pulling that off for the entirety of 2016, but I also didn’t think it would take me two months to write a post. Sure enough, however, I last wrote on March 1, and while I’m no scientist, I’m pretty sure that’s two months, Leap Year or no Leap Year (checked: it’s not a Leap Year).

In any case, you may be wondering—or you may not be wondering—what I’ve been up to for two months, all that blogging time suddenly freed up. I wish I could report that I’ve whipped myself into shape, have fixed every lingering repair in my house and in the yard, and have completed my long-forming novel, all goals I set out for myself at the start of this non-daily blogging year. If I said any of those things, dear readers, I’d be lying. However, to some degree, I have actually made progress. In that time, I’ve managed to actually get the dust off the treadmill and can run for a bit without dying. I still have lingering repairs, but not quite as many (okay, I’ve changed a couple of lightbulbs and screwed on a couple of cabinet doors). And while I haven’t finished any novels lately, I have actually written a couple of stories, have revised another, and heck, might even write some later tonight.

On the more positive end, I have gotten my yard into shape, especially the front, clearing out a lot of dead brush and leaves, mowing and trimming with regularity, and best of all, there’s a new perennial garden where our ornamental plum fell last fall. The oldest boy and I have been working on Scouting advancements more, as he’s now a Boy instead of a Cub. Best of all, I turned my office—which looked like it had been tossed by movie criminals looking for a hidden hard drive—into a ridiculously clean habitat of efficiency and creativity. For the first time in my teaching career—twenty-three years now—I’m actually on top of my grading, even ahead.

Do I owe all of these upswings to neglecting this blog? No, not really. As the Karen points out, I led a decently productive life last year and posted every day. Maybe I just feel more accomplished, more well rounded now. Yeah, that’s the ticket: well rounded.

Today being the start of Short Story Monthall of these new collections starting to collect dust on my shelf, I decided to get back into it. My first instinct was, “I’ll do one every day in May!” Immediately, my second instinct was, “Don’t promise that, you idiot—it’s the end of the semester and you’ll have a shit-ton of grading to do next week.” Karen, of course, seeing me reading today, figured out exactly whatI was up to—me skulking off with a collection in hand probably gave her some PTSD—but opined, “You should do one every day this month!” I’m not making any promises. It’s May 1, I’m here with a new post, and yeah, I enjoyed getting back to reading something new, to expressing my thoughts with words. But May is one of the longest months—tied for first place with six other months—so all I can say now is we’ll see how it goes.

Today’s feature story is “Beautiful Monsters” from Eric Puchner‘s collection Last Day on Earth, out earlier this year from Scribner. This is my first foray into work by Puchner, who also has a novel, Model Home, and a previous collection, Music Through the Floor. Throw Puchner onto the How haven’t I read this guy before? pile, but here I am, fixing the hell out of that. I read the first three stories from Last Day on Earth—which didn’t include the title story—and “Beautiful Monsters” is the one that’s sticking with me the most. So, here we go.

“Beautiful Monsters” is set in some alternate/dystopian future of our society where people are raised as perennials (like those new flowers in my front yard!), people who seem to never get old, remaining small children for the entirety of their lives; Puchner never explains how this happens, but we do know that the two main characters, the boy and the girl, look around nine years old, but the girl is thirty. I suspect it’s some sort of cloning, some sort of drug treatment, or some other kind of sciencey flux capacitor that’s made this possible, but I didn’t really care how it happened because it just is that way and I bought it.

In any case, the boy and the girl—who may or may not be brother and sister, and/or may or may not be romantically linked—are hanging around their house one day when they see an adult male skulking around in their back yard, picking apples off their tree. Right away, on the first page, Puchner makes it clear that this is odd, as the boy has not only never seen an adult human before, but he goes to fetch his family .22 to shoo this intruder away. The man, picking the apples because he’s starving, is full-blown caveman, sporting long, straggly hair, yellow, crooked teeth, and clothing made from animal skins. We find out, after the man has assuaged himself into the house, that he’s part of a rebellious little band of realish people, dubbed Senescents here, who have been surviving in the rough up in the mountains, only to have a fire, and government troops (who just may have caused the fire) chase them down into the subdivisions. There, the troops can round them up more easily, as yeah, most of the kid-people like the boy and the girl turn them in, if not taking the Senescents out all by themselves—a pretty hefty bounty is put on information leading to their capture, etc, etc.

In the meanwhile, the man is dealing with a pretty bad wound on his leg while the kids take care of him in their home, society none the wiser. They go to work—the boy builds houses and the girl works in data collection—and both of them watch the man, amazed that he’s so old and does things so oddly. Pretty soon, the man, as injured and stinky as he is, starts taking on a paternal role, even threatening punishment if the kids don’t listen to what he says—instinct has taken over and the adult has started ordering the kids around. That wound on his leg isn’t getting any better, placing a clock on this emerging relationship, also stunted by an increased search for more of the Senescents—it’s implied the man is the last of his tribe.

I won’t go any further into the plot, as it winds down rather quickly from there. I like this story for a variety of reasons, including the basic sci-fi premise, Puchner’s convincing descriptions, but especially for how the relationship between the boy and girl and the man quickly evolves (just like the man does after a shower, shave, and change of clothes). Puchner really has fun with this inverted fish-out-of-water story, but also adds a real tenderness to the relationship. Perhaps, Puchner might be saying, people need parental guidance and affection more than they need immortality. Surely, things cross into Huxley territory, with a little Logan’s Run thrown in, but Puchner keeps it fresh with specific details and some pretty dynamite prose.

Last Day on Earth, three stories in, is a promisingly geat collection, Eric Puchner apparently rather eclectic. It opens with “Brood X,” a coming-of-age tale set against the coming of the cicadas. Next comes “Beautiful Monsters. Finally I read “Mothership,” about a woman who’s having a bad go of it, but isn’t getting the attention she craves. I liked all three and want to read the rest of the book, another solid addition to the 2017 short story collection roster.

 

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“Dead Dogs” by Joseph Scapellato

Hello, Story366! It’s rare that I’m organized enough to write a post about a book on the day it’s released, yet here we are, the day Joseph Scapellato‘s book, Big Lonesome, hit the stores, and here I am, at Story366, posting my thang. I must be getting better at this, an epiphany of competence and organizational skills as I move forward with this project. (Ignore that fact that most reviews of a book appear before the book’s release—I’m not that organized.)

Or maybe I’m firing today it’s because it’s Pączki Day and I’m full of pączki?! I think that’s probably it. If you don’t know what Pączki Day is, I think I covered it a year ago … and yep, checking the Archives, last February 9, I not only discussed Pączki Day in my post, but selected a story by a great Pole, the greatest Pole writer, maybe, Stuart Dybek, to boot. “Scapellato” doesn’t sound very Polish to me—though I’ve been wrong about that before—but Joe is a Cub fan, has lived in Chicago, so I’m sure he at least knows what the fuck a pączki is.

And here I am, in the second go-around of Story366, already reacting to myself, adjusting. How Poststory366ist of me.

Anyway, for today, I read several stories out of Big Lonesome, out from Mariner Books, and really enjoyed them all. The book is cut into three sections, “Old West,” “New West,” and “Post-West,” and chronicles different stages of cowboyness, more or less. Those stories in “Old West” seem like traditional old cowboy tales, straight from the range, though with a more contemporary feel. “New West” moves things more toward present-day, while “Post-West” tells cowboy stories, of sorts, only they take place in Chicago, where Scapellato spent a good deal of time (in fact, Joe is the first person from the writer world to ever recognize me at Wrigley Field while I was vending beer, to stop me mid-aisle and talk about my book—we’ve been friends ever since). Most of the stories are shorts, two-four pages long, though I found a couple of longer stories in the mix, too, including “Cowgirl” in the first section, about a girl who is actually born from a cow, and today’s focus, “Dead Dogs,” found in the last section (yeah, pretty inevitable I was going to write about the Chicago stories, wasn’t it?).

“Dead Dogs” is about this unnamed guy who lives in Chicago, up in East Rogers Park, and is looking after his ex-fiancée’s dog, Burnham. The ex is in Europe, spending time, “as friends,” with a further-removed ex-boyfriend, and here’s our protagonist, the biggest sap in the world, doing her this big favor. Does our guy, our narrator, like Burnham? Sure. But he’s more than aware of the situation, how pathetic he is, how pathetic all this must look. That’s the premise for this story and it’s a dandy.

Most of the story, and the inspiration for the title, comes from where our hero and Burnham spend their nights, which is in this local dog-friend comedy club (first story I’ve ever read set in one of those, I have to admit). Our guy takes Burnham there, sits at the bar, and inevitably has a ton of dogless patrons come up to him, pet Burnham, then sit and explain why they don’t have a dog with them: Their dogs are dead. Our guy buys them a drink and they tell them their tragic tales of how they lost their beloved friends. Scallepato’s protagonist, in turn, gets to tell his story, about this ex he’s not remotely over yet, plus how he’s stuck watching her dog while she’s schtooping some guy in the Alps.

Have I gone into the sad stand-up comedy that goes on at this comedy club? No, but there’s, at one point, a guy named Mr. Rape Joke Man who takes the stage. That’s the kind of place this is, not exactly Second City.

Oh, I also should mention the fact that Burnham won’t eat, and while our guy tries to wrestle food into his mouth, he (our narrator, not Burnham) gets shockingly throbby hard-ons. That seems important to your understanding of this guy, too.

Still, this story isn’t about bad comedy or whatever that thing in the last paragraph is (though it’s easy to make some logical guesses …), it’s about this break-up. And what, in every break-up story, finally leads the sad bastard away from doom and gloom? Another woman, of course, and in the last third of the story, that’s what Scallepato offers us. A cute and wayward stand-up thinks Burnham is the bee’s knees and our narrator isn’t so bad, either. They leave the bar, head back to her place, and, well, stuff happens, stuff I won’t reveal here.

Other than the title, and that horse head on the cover, I had no indication that Big Lonesome would be a collection of cowboy stories until I started to read the blurbs on the back cover, examined the table of contents. I’ve read Joseph Scallepato’s work before, but perhaps only those late-book Chicago pieces, or just not enough to know this is what his first full-length offering to the would be. It matters not, as I thoroughly enjoyed the stories set in the Old West, in the New West, and in my old stomping grounds—I also especially admire “Western Avenue,” about a displaced westerner who can’t get over how there’s a street in Chitown called “Western Avenue.” All in all, this debut is a cohesive, daring, and always-surprising collection, one that depicts a lot of Little Dogies, on the range or off, most of them loners, trying to hide some kind of paint behind an air of solemn cool. It’s out today and an early bid for one of my favs of 2017.

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“In the Village of Elmsta” by Jensen Beach

Say hey, Story366! It’s been almost two weeks since I last posted. That last offering, on Melissa Goodrich’s fine debut collection, was straight from the Moon City Press table at the AWP Book Fair, in the heat of moment, interested attendees stepping up to our display from the right and from the left. This was at the very beginning of the while shebang, too, on Thursday morning, right after setting up and settling in. Really, AWP hadn’t happened yet, and today, I’m finally getting around to my report.

Like every AWP for the last six or seven years, my personal time was split between two factions of AWP, that Book Fair and then the off-sight events held around the host city (DC this time) in the evening. From 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., I was anchored to the table—save breaks for lunches each day, when the table was covered by the lone student-editor from Springfield to attend the conference. Otherwise, it was all me, all the time, and really, that’s what I prefer. I’m very proud of the books that MCP puts out, and at this point, four years into that foray, we’ve garnered quite the catalogue. It’s thrilling for me to sit there, all of these beautiful titles on display, all of them together, tilted on bookstands, and see people come up and genuinely react as if impressed. Dozens of times, conference goers told me how incredible our books look, and for me, that’s enough to make me want to stay in the Book Fair the entire time (of course, I have almost nothing to do with how the books look on the outsise, as that’s handled by MCP’s designer, Charli Barnes).

On top of that, me sitting at a table in the Book Fair is the best way for me to run into people I know, people who are looking for me, people I only see once a year, at the Book Fair, while I’m sitting at a table. There’s a lot of those types, former students and colleagues—it’s always a bit of a Bowling Green MFA reunion at these things—writers I’ve published, and even the occasional person who has read my books and -gasp!- wants me to sign a copy. You know how they tell you when you’re a kid that if you’re lost, stay in one place, then the people looking for you will eventually run into you? That’s me at AWP: If I’m in one place, everyone can find me.

After 5 p.m., Karen—who attended for the first time in five years, making my whole conference—and I hit the town and attended off-sight events. On Friday, we scooted across town to Karen’s reading for Sundress, where we saw about a dozen fantastic poets read, Karen being the last. Then we split up and I saw this awesome reading that featured five new authors who had just published story collections, including Michelle Ross (whose There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You just came out from MCP), Matt Fogarty (whose book I blurbed), Sequoia Nagamatsu (ditto), and Allegra Hyde and Dana Diehl, both of whom I featured on Story366 last year. What a great evening, seeing the sweet Karen read from her new book, take in another batch of great poets, and then see these five young writers read together. Thursday night was the best night of the conference.

On Friday, Karen and I high-tailed to Catholic University and saw perhaps the most impressive lineup of poets I’ve ever seen performing together. The whole thing was a celebration  of female poets over the age of sixty and included luminaries like Michelle Boisseau, Marianne Boruch, Terese Svoboda, Rosellen Brown, Robin Becker, and several others. Not sure if I’ll see a line up like that again, and to boot, all of the poets read a poem by another poet they admired, women like Louise Glück, Ruth Stone, and Mary Oliver. It was a long event, but they had prosciutto and wine, so I wasn’t exactly in a hurry.

Karen and I had a plane leaving Saturday night, so the last day of the Book Fair was all about me trying to get rid of stock. We gave out nine boxes of the new Moon City Review during the conference—as a still-newish mag, I think it’s more imperative to get the word out than it is to sell a handful of copies at full price—and by 2 o’clock, we were out of everything, meaning all I had to cram into my carry-ons was the MCP table skirt and a dozen bookstands.

Sadly, that doesn’t include what I bought/picked up at the Book Fair, which, this year, was only two books. One was The Real Natasha by Michael Leone from the fine people at Braddock Avenue Books, which I’ll write about here soon, and a copy of The Santa Fe Literary Review, which one of their editors dropped off at our table. Two books?! From that HUGE-ASS Book Fair?!  That’s my only regret of AWP 2017, that I never really made my rounds, talked to editors, got the skinny on new lit journals, or picked up more collections for this project. Next year, I’ll have to make that my priority, because really, what a waste of a fantastic event, of a fantastic resource.

I almost just wrote a paragraph about our travels from the conference back home, how it was kind of a pain and long and complicated, but then I realized that a) I’m almost a thousand words into this and haven’t talked about Jensen Beach yet, and b) a rundown of our travel stories—planes, trains, and automobiles—might be the most boring thing ever.

That said, 961 words in, I’ve been reading from Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold, out from Graywolf, for a couple of weeks now, which I guess is the rate at which I read books post-2016. In any case, I’ve known Jensen and his work for a bit, and should disclose that he works for Green Mountains Review, which took a story of mine a few years back. But in any case, I was happy to see this collection announced for last year, and am happy to finally get to it. As noted, I’ve read several stories from the collection—which is made up on interlinked tales, set in Sweden over a two-year period—but I really love a lot of things about the opening story, “In the Village of Elmsta,” so here we go.

“In the Village of Elmsta” is a story with a unique structure and approach to POV, which for me more and more seems to be determining factor when picking a story; I teach, so craft is important, and anyone who breaks from the Freitag model is going to grab my attention. In any case, this story starts off with a really engaging and funny anecdote about this guy named Rolf Strand, who lives in Elmsta—not far from Stockholm—who has just played the best tennis of his life. Rolf is in his seventies, so that means something, especially since he’s just defeated a retiredSwedish tennis hero (who twice made it to the semis of the French Open). This seems impressive, but Beach lets leak, rather casually, that this tennis pro is not only old and retired, but that his arm—his playing arm—is now a  prosthetic. In close psychic distance, this is a brief but key detail in accessing Rolf’s psyche, and it’s pretty funny to hear someone brag about an athletic feat, only to find out soon after it was against a one-armed opponent.

As the story moves forward, Rolf heads home on his bicycle and is planning on calling his son when he gets there, planning on inviting him for dinner. He is a beaming father, proud papa, and along with his late-life tennis accomplishments, Rolf becomes a really likable guy. Which is too bad, because Rolf, a few pages later, dies, only about a third of the way into the story. Beach has Rolf ride home on his bike, alongside a canal, where he sees a sailboat moving alongside him. Rolf sees the bridge ahead of them, knows that if he doesn’t beat the boat to the bridge, he’ll have to wait for it to be raised and then put back down, so he high-tails it. When he’s just about to the bridge, he has an accident, one that sends him over his handlebars and into the canal, where he bumps his head on a rock. Profuse bleeding commences. Rolf settles on the shore, blood pouring out of his head, and he even tries to signal the people on the sailboat that he’d just raced to the bridge, people who wave back as if he’s just saying hi. Rolf dies, sitting on that shore.

After a space break, Beach backtracks a bit to that sailboat, to the guy whose captaining it, right before the aforedescribed events. Our pilot is Henrik Brandt and he’s taking a leisurely trip with his wife, Lisa, a colleague named Peter, and Peter’s wife, Helle. We get into Henrik’s head, him recapping things for us, letting us know that Peter and Helle are staying with Henrik and Lisa for the week. Just as he’s about to cross the bridge, he sees Helle waving at someone on the shore, a man sitting next to a bicycle—of course, readers know it’s Rolf and he’s not waving—but inside Henrik’s head, it’s just a happy-go-lucky guy, sitting with his feet in the canal, out for a bike ride. The bridge goes up and down and the quartet anchor their boat and resume their vacation at Henrik’s house.

Remember, Henrik’s POV takes up the last two-thirds of the story, and as much as I’ve already revealed—I toyed with not telling you about Rolf’s demise at all—I won’t go much further. I will say that this is really Henrik’s story and Beach captures him at a key point in his life. He’s just taken a new job, he and Lisa are at odds, and oh, during this weeklong visit, he’s initiated a passionate affair with Helle. When everyone finds out about Rolf’s death, deducing that he was the one sitting on the shore and he was not waving, all of Henrik’s thoughts and troubles explode from the background and cause quite an ado.

Reading a story where the POV focus dies a third of the way through, only to pick up with another POV—a person who saw him die—isn’t groundbreaking (think “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”), but it’s still rare enough to take note of, to remember, to write about. That’s not to underscore anything else that Beach does in this story, as his characterization of both men is pretty in-depth and he has a knack for description, putting me right there on that shore. Most of all, he’s smart enough to catch a couple of people at crucial junctures in their lives, understanding how that makes the best kind of fiction. I literally just told my students that on Friday, how important this is, and then I read Beach’s story, the perfect example.

“In the Village of Elmsta” is just the first story, too. Some of these characters return in later entries, sometimes as the protagonists, sometimes as supporting characters. What’s the overall end of these stories, two days in Sweden that we see through a variety of its people? I can’t say for sure yet, as I haven’t gotten that far. What I have read, though, showcases a writer utilizing his incredible skill set. I’m so pleased I picked this book up and spent some time with it. My rec is you do the same.

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“Daughters of Monsters” by Melissa Goodrich

Hello, Story366! I suppose this is officially AWP week, ‘cause AWP is this week, and I’m headed that way myself. Last year, the big Story366 year, I wisely chose to do a short-short week this week, meaning I didn’t have to spend nearly as much time concentrating on any particular piece, which is hard to do at a book fair table. It was a hectic but rewarding week—I sure do like shorts—and I made my deadlines every day. As I’m no longer facing the daily challenge of the blog, I’m certainly not going to be crouched in some lobby, frantically stabbing at keys so I can make it to readings and dinner dates. I do want to do at least one entry during the conference—after today—just to check in. I mean, this is still a writer’s blog, right? And AWP is still the major writers’ conference, right? Seems like I should say a few thing while I’m there, read a book while I’m at it.

Right now, though, I still have to get there, and as I type this, I’m on a plane, en route to DC. Karen and I are in the third-to-last row, our luggage is stowed several rows ahead of us, and the guy in front of me has put the seat back all the way and is tossing and turning as he tries to sleep. I have the window seat and my ears have shut. I’m trying hard to forget I’m high-end claustrophobic, that I sorta want to get up, do some, some jumping jacks, then walk out the side door of the plane to more open spaces. So far, meh, but if either of my legs falls asleep, Karen and the nice lady on the aisle might have to get up and out of my way and quick.

For today’s entry, I read a bunch of stories from Melissa Goodrich’s collection Daughters of Monsters, out from Jellyfish Highway Press. Another JHP author, Dana Diehl, recommended this book to me, as the two of them are friends and often collaborate together. I liked Diehl’s book a lot and have enjoyed Goodrich’s collection just as much, even though each writer has a completely different style. Diehl’s stories, if I recall, seemed like realism, while Goodrich could easily be pegged as a fabulist, if I were into pegging writing in  that way (note: Goodrich has some nonfiction writing, I’ve noticed, specifically on fabulism). Still, there’s some magical realism, some absurdism, and some retold fairy tales among her stories, so, yeah, that’s what she does.

By the way, cut ahead a bit, like twelve hours. The plane started its descent right as I typed that last paragraph and I had to put my computer away. Since, we deboarded, got to the train station, got to the convention center, registered, found our room, got a shit-ton of boxes onto the Moon City Press table (125-T!) at the book fair, showered, ate some Tapas, went to a reading for Newfound, Waxwing, and As/US, went to my reading where I read for Ninth Letter at the Monster Mags of the Midwest reading (which I used to organized, years back), walked back to our hotel, running into 478 people we knew. So, that’s the last twelve hours. And the conference hasn’t officially started yet.

Back to Goodrich. I certainly read some fabulist-type stories, including the title story, “Daughters of Monsters,” which I’ll focus on today. “Daughters of Monsters” is about a fourteen-year-old girl who is the daughter of a monster—a platypus-seeming thing that lays eggs and has fur and such—who is also the daughter of a monster. Goodrich has poet-level skills in both decription and lyricism, and in “Daughters of Monsters,” she unloads image after image of what these so-called monsters look like, from their beaks to their feathers to the slimy aftertrails. So, this term “monster” comes off as quite literal, as it seems like some half-human, half-animal creatures populate an otherwise contemporary landscape, with school, boyfriends, cooking and other everyday challenges.

Goodrich also includes some very contemporary themes in the lives of her daughters and monsters, mainly the kinds of things that pester and haunt most fourteen-year-old girls, things like sex, pregnancy, and personal appearance anxiety. The protagonist here, whose name we never get, is worried about her wings coming in like a normal human girl might consider her breasts, full monsterdom arriving with puberty. How terrifying it is—for girls and boys—to go through these changes, and I think that’s what Goodrich is getting at. They’re confused, basically, and horrified. At the end of the first paragraph of the story, Goodrich conflates her hero’s worries with the line “You don’t have to eat the chicken bones while your mother eats the meat,  you’re fourteen years old still, what is sex,” everything jumbled together in one mind-meandering sentence.

The comparisons to adolescence don’t stop at the physical, however, as Goodrich’s monster-daughter faces social fears as well, such as her boyfriend pressuring her for sex, her boyfriend being more attracted to her fully developed mother than to her, and a baby sister usurping all the attention; all three of these scenarios make for weird and wonderful scenes in the story, reminding me of David Lynch’s anxious father in Eraserhead. So, Goodrich makes her hero like any other fourteen-year-old, in body and in mind, only this young woman has wings and fangs and such.

Overall, the metaphoric value of this character perceiving herself as a monster doesn’t take away from what’s really on the page and that’s a really intense, lyrical story about a family of monsters interacting with each other in strange ways. I was riveted to every part of this, surprised over and over again, and read the story three times, finding something new each pass.

Most of the stories I read in Daughters of Monsters had the same effect on me as the title piece, daring, innovative pieces of fiction that introduced me to a strong and distinct new voice. I really liked everything I read in this collection, making it an impressive debut, an impressive book in general. Check it out.

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“Those Like Us” by Christopher Lowe

Good to be back, Story366! Wow, did I go the whole month of January and only do one post? Wow, I knew I’d take a break, ease off, let my mind do its thing for a while, but I didn’t think I’d cut back that much. Well, my mind is rested and I’ve been missing the blog, missing the books, missing the new stories, so here I am, almost 1 a.m. the morning after Groundhog Day, back at it. Long live the story!

What’s funny is, despite only putting up one post all month, January 2017 was not the month with the least hits for the blog—that honor, for some reason, goes to April and June of last year, when I did thirty posts each time. As a baseball fan, I’m all into stats, which is one of the reasons I love doing this on WordPress, just because they give you tons. Before I started writing this tonight, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that people still go to the blog, every day, and read various entries. In fact, it totally makes my day, night, week, and young month of February. Every day it’s a different author that seems to be getting attention, too, which is awesome. I knew I’d finish the original 366 one day, but always hoped this would carry on as a living archive. so far, so good.

It’s also strange that I’m doing a post tonight because I’m, for the first time in four days, not deathly ill. I had a bout with the brutal kind of nasty this week, a mix of flu and either bronchitis or pneumonia (I’ve had both before and think this has felt like pneumonia so I’ve been telling people pneumonia because that’s more badass than bronchitis, which is what little kids get when they don’t button their snow boots tight). It came on Monday, almost killed me Tuesday, added a bad head cold Wednesday, and more or less left town on Thursday. Still taking antibiotics—which I’m thinking of marrying right now—and the fact that I’ve been able to read, write, and type is a good sign. Still, here’s a shot of me at the university health center that Karen took (she drove me and waited for me even though it’s a block from our house and I can see it right now from our back window as I write this):

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That’s me in the foreground. That guy in the background? Now he’s famous. Or maybe infected. Either one.

Not sure how much I’ll be writing in the coming week or so, either, seeing as how AWP is next week in DC and Moon City Press just had two titles come back from the printer today, Michelle Ross‘ There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You and Moon City Review 2017. Take a peek:

I’m pretty stoked to be adding these titles to the catalogue, along with all our other great books. I also can’t wait to see them all stacked up together on the MCP table at AWP. I’m such a collector, adding another Moon City Short Fiction Award winner and another issue of the mag to their respective series is like a dream, especially two coming on the same day. Bliss!

Wait! Aren’t I supposed to write about a story or something today? Right! For tonight’s entry, I read from Christopher Lowe‘s collection Those Like Us, out from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. I’ve known Chris and his work for a while now, always enjoying what he does, but never sat down and read any in succession. I read a quad of tales tonight, finding out that his stories read really well like that, together, most likely because Those Like Us is a book of linked stories—one of Lowe’s blurbists even calls it a novel—a collection set in the fictional Wyeth, Mississippi. I’m writing about the title story tonight, but saw a couple of supporting characters from it show up as supporting characters in other stories as well (and, I’m assuming, in more stories, perhaps even as the leads). What I read, jumping all over the book, all feels so homogenous, sure, but genuine, too, as Lowe has surely captured smalltown Mississippi in this outstanding effort.

“Those Like Us” is about this guy who finds himself, at the start of the story, dealing with Hurricane Jonathan, thinking about that name, Jonathan, and how inappropriate it feels for a hurricane. Of course, none of that matters, as nothing changes the fact Jonathan has hit the coast and caused a lot of damage. Wyeth is a bit inland, saving it from the brunt of things, but some powerful storms have still knocked power out, namely to the bar our hero has just inherited from his uncle. The joint is called The Porch and it has one big room, a bathroom, and a little room in back where our guy sleeps and lives. It’s located down the road a bit from the Wyeth Walmart, so the two establishments share some traffic. It’s the kind of place the local college kids go to because they know our protagonist, just a few years older than they are, won’t ID, won’t keep them in check, and won’t even close when the whole town is in the dark. All of it is a recipe for things going wrong, which is cool, because this is a short story and that’s what stories are supposed to do.

One thing does seem to be going well—”seem” being the key word—and that’s how Karen, the Porch’s pretty waitress, has had to stay the night at the bar, the roads too bad to travel after close. Karen wakes up in his bed in the back just when our guy is considering Jonathan as a hurricane moniker. There’s mention of a woman named Sally (in the narration, not out loud), and it seems as if our barkeep has cheated on the lovely Sally with the lovely Karen. That’s a ruse, however, as we soon find out that Karen slept alone in that bed—our guy sleeping on the bar, I guess?—and nothing happened, though everything about Karen’s body language says she would have loved some company, the way she touches him, how she says she’ll come back and hang out with him, even if they don’t open, just to hang out alone in his dark bar. Sounds appealing—I should note that our protagonist is really into Karen, too, so it’s not just her—but there’s still the Sally factor, which seems to complicate things.

Only, it doesn’t, not really, as Sally already left our guy and took her daughter (which our guy was helping her to raise, which he considered his own) months ago and split. Lowe informs us that the only thing delaying a hook-up with Karen in the back of the bar on a rainy, dark day is our guy’s inability to act. He just can’t do it, not even when Karen bumps hips with him on the way out and flashes him her best smile. Our guy just freezes, a trait that becomes his most dominant.

Even worse, instead of closing the bar and taking Karen up on her offer to do whatever, our guy opens his doors, lets in a bunch of college kids, college kids that end up drinking too much (it happens), and … well, that’s about all I’ll reveal in terms of plot. Other things happen, a lot of backstory comes into play, and in the end, the story ends (as they tend to do).

As much as what happens in “Those Like Us” and what Lowe’d protagonist doesn’t do, this story should be marked by the atmosphere that its author so carefully paints. Wyeth seems pretty swell, even to this Chicago Yank, a place where friendly people sip beer, watch and talk college football, eat barbecue, and fall in love with the people they grew up with. It’s rainy in this title story because of the hurricane, but other stories seem to pulse green and freshness, crickets and other critters buzzing on every page. Wyeth, like Winesburg, Ohio, or even Knockemstiff, needs to be where it is, these stories existing in this place, this place existing for these stories. Lowe’s also wickedly good at weaving his seemingly simple tales into a larger, broader vision, one that I’m guessing becomes more and more enriched with every story you read.

So, I really like “Those Like Us,” the strong title story from one of two Christopher Lowe story collections (he also has a book of essays). Lowe utilizes place as well as anyone I’ve read—and that’s no overstatement, even considering how much I’ve read—but also made me really like every character I encountered, put me in every story I visited, made me care about these people, want to visit this town. No easy order, but this really good book pulls it off.

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