January 17: “I Am an Executioner” by Rajesh Parameswaran

As a professor of creative writing, I think it’s my job to “keep up” with what’s going on in literature. My interpretation of this is putting my ear to the pavement and making sure I know about, mainly, the short story writers and collections that arrive on the scene. If there’s buzz about someone, a consensus that a writer is great, being widely read, I need to let my students know about them, give them a sample, so they, too, can be “up to date;” I like it when my students suggest someone new and exciting to read, but selfishly, prefer that it works the other way around. Authority! I can’t assign every great story or every new story, and I’m not one to read Publisher’s Weekly or The New York Times Book Review every week—I’m not that consistent. But I can check up on The New Yorker archives, read a lot of lit mags, and monitor social networking. Sometimes I’m already friends with a writer who becomes the next thing, but often, talent emerges and I get on board a bit late.

Such is the case with Rajesh Parameswaran. It was the end of 2014 and I was making my syllabi for Spring 2015 and realized I’d been teaching a lot of the same stories for a few years. Since many of my students have had me for classes before, they were going to be repeating work, getting bored, perhaps. I had to find new authors, new things for them to read and learn from. Conveniently, a lot of “Best of 2014” lists had just emerged, so it was easy to type “best story collections 2014” into the Google and see what came up. The name that was most consistently on every list was Parameswaran’s I Am an Executioner: Love Stories, so I ordered his book.

The story that initially stuck out to me, by chance, was the first, “The Infamous Bengal Ming,” not only about a tiger (there’s tiger art on the cover), but from the tiger’s point of view. It’s a lovely, violent story, from this unreliable perspective (tigers will be tigers), and breaks one of those basic Intro to Fiction rules that teachers preach: Don’t write from the perspective of an animal. There are exceptions, of course—the Dave Egger’s story “After I Was Thrown Into the River and Before I Drowned” comes to mind—but animal POVs are up there with alarm-clock stories and it-was-all-a-dreams, something to generally avoid. We talked about “The Infamous Bengal Ming” in all my classes, and the general consensus was this story was one of the exceptions, that the right story, in the right author’s hands (and using the right animal, I’ll add), can work. If Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is the alarm-clock story that everyone should read, then Parameswaran’s tiger tale might be the animal POV story for the ages (sorry, Jack London).

Since I’d previously read “The Infamous Bengal Ming,” I had to delve deeper into the book for a new story, and realizing I’d never read the title story, I decided it was time to get to “I Am an Executioner” and see what was up with it. To my pleasant surprise, I loved it more than “The Infamous Bengal Ming,” and am glad to be writing about it today.

“I Am an Executioner” delivers what it promises, as it’s a first-person present narrative about an executioner, in an unnamed country, the guy who watches death-row inmates and then puts their heads in the noose when it’s their time. It’s a solo Green Mile, this executioner just as compassionate, but without, perhaps, the instincts—at one point, to pass the time, he offers to play Hangman with one of his subjects, the irony completely lost on him. This type of attaboy obliviousness reveals how suited for this job he is, able to make friends with his prisoners, then put them to death (black hood included) the next day. It’s as if he’s a courteous innkeeper, entertaining guests during a vacation, then sending them on their way, a smile and some travel advice for the road. Maybe he’s just that accepting of his role, or maybe it’s PTSD (they seem to execute a lot of people in this country). Either way, our protagonist has settled into his job and no one before Parameswaran has made mass execution so entertaining.

Along with the executioner’s bedside manner, I found myself in love with his consistently awry diction. Lines like “In Margaret’s slitty eyes I seed her interest; I seed, if I talked correctly now, I might have everything I wanted, minimum of fighting.” I still don’t know if he’s talking about some past tense of “see” or actual seeds. To one of his inmates: “Don’t be scaredy. Is this your first time in our capital city? Did you come from some country place? What an excitement!” It’s a combination of Yakov Smirnoff’s Cold War Russian-English and Yoda, a guy who doesn’t speak the language even though it’s his own language. Combine with the goofy competency in his work, our hero is a true original, maybe the only voice that can pull this bleak story off as a comedy.

The book’s title includes “Love Stories,” and “I Am an Executioner” is a love story, too, the aforementioned Margaret serving as the object of the executioner’s desires. The conflict—amidst so many possibilities—really lies in her attitude toward his work: Newly married, she discovers his trade, and doesn’t like it. Parameswaran employs that unhampered enthusiasm as a device to convince Margaret all is well, that he has a role, and his role serves a purpose. He basically sells it as being able to meet a lot of nice people, plus contribute to society. When a particular prisoner comes under his watch, Margaret needs to take her protests further, leading to the story’s climax.

I Am an Executioner: Love Stories by Rajesh Parameswaran is one of the great collections of 2014, and one of the strongest I’ve read in recent years. I look forward to (finally) finishing this book, and to what else he has in store. From what I can tell, nobody since Flannery O’Connor can make the grotesque so damn fun.

Rajesh Parameswaran