January 20: “The Hairdresser, the Giant, and the King of Roses” by Micah Dean Hicks

Today’s story can be found in Micah Dean Hicks’ 2013 collection Electricity & Other Dreams from New American Press. I saw on Facebook that it was the author’s birthday yesterday, right after I made my post, so today marks the first official belated birthday celebration of a writer. Coincidentally, Electricity was up in the queue for this week, anyway, so today’s post is sort of like the guy who shows up at someone’s house, ready to party, not knowing there’s an actual party already going on. Serendipity, I say. Now let’s play flip cup and make some crank calls (because that’s what I think people do at parties now, I guess).

Electricity & Other Dreams is another book that’s sat on my shelf too long, and like the rest of the books I’ve said that about this year, I’m thrilled I finally got to it. It’s a great collection, one that captured my imagination from the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first story. To find the right one to write about, I read a handful of stories and it was hard to pick. That first piece, “The Time of the Wolf,” is a modernization of “The Monkey’s Paw,” while “Cleaning the Fleaboy” is a parable, its moral lesson as much a surprise as Hicks’ varied descriptions of fleas.

“The Hairdresser, the Giant, and the King of Roses,” is the story I’m “settling” on, though, as it’s the longest and most complex of the ones I’ve read, the one as a technician I admire the most. It chronicles the converging paths of three characters, but mostly centers on one, Marti Shepherd, a high school student who is the most popular, successful, and flamboyant high school student in the history of the world. She is the type of girl who’s not only head cheerleader and valedictorian, but can be encapsulated by this fun string of accomplishments: “She baked cakes in the middle of the night, rolled stones into her parents’ yard and chiseled them into Buddhas, tamed a possum, and never went to the same church twice.” Everyone either loves Marti or is in love with her. She’s destined for greatness, leaving soon for a faraway college, too big for the limitations of her jerkwater berg.

The story becomes a fairy tale rather quickly (in case the title didn’t tip you off), as Marti’s aura attracts the attention of a witch, a witch who’d like to trade her future with Marti’s. Through some clever manipulations and some well crafted dialogue by Hicks, the witch is able to dupe Marti and achieve her goal; soon, the witch is a wealthy, award-winning actor. Meanwhile, Marti’s curse is to help admirers be like her in a small way, to copy her illustrious golden hair onto them (as the hairdresser). There’s an additional catch: Marti is able to weave other people’s hair into actual gold, which—because it’s a fairy tale—serves a curse instead of a blessing (i.e., it’s really heavy and you get robbed a lot).

At the same time, there’s an evil real estate developer named Ricky who’s turning the town into his private rose garden (he’s the king of roses), employing a ten-foot-tall town oaf named Bryan Cox (the giant, not the British actor or NFL linebacker) to dig his trenches. The town eventually becomes consumed by either its lust for golden hair or is enclosed in walls of rose bushes. Sooner or later, these opposing forces have to meet, and that’s where the conflict ensues, the showdown between Marti and Ricky, Bryan Cox stuck in-between.

This is what Hicks seems to do. He takes stories, maybe even tropes, the ones we’re familiar with, and he updates them, puts his own grotesque, even macabre spin on them. Or maybe his stories are a distant cousin of one you’ve read, a minor detail in common like the slope of a neck or the shape of they eyes, but otherwise evolved, their own person. These stories are fun to read, to see what else Hicks would do, how he’d handle his premises. “The Hairdresser, the Giant, and the King of Roses” just keeps layering new characters and new twists until all three of its protagonists come together for their inevitable crash. Like with most fairy tales, there’s not necessarily a happy ending, and certainly not a predictable one. Electricity & Other Dreams is an eclectic book, filled with magical, gritty, and clever tales just like this.

It’s become habit for me, in this project, to read a few stories from a collection before picking one to write about, and Hicks’ book, more than any other, got me reading and reading before stopping to write. Each of the twenty-six stories (or, the five I’ve read) seemingly gives me something completely new, but not in the same way. This seems like a pretty generic blurb for a book, but skipping around to find a story to write about, I didn’t know what I was going to come across next. The only consistency in the book is its ability to challenge a convention, to make it into something else it wasn’t before. It reminds me a lot of Amber Sparks’ new book, The Unfinished World, too, which I highlighted yesterday, a taste of magic, of dry humor, and of biting reality in every story. What a find this is. Here’s to more from this author, and soon.

Micah Dean Hicks

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