March 4: “Hooper Gets a Perm” by Michael Griffith

Spring Break! Just finished my last class, and as I type this, I’m in Jimmy D’s grandpa’s Skylark with Jimmy D, Vinnie, Three-balls, Bizquick, Jimmy Z, and Cornhole, and we’re headed down to Daytona. I have $33 with me, but since Three-balls’ uncle is doing DUI jail this weekend, we can stay at his doublewide in Jupiter for free, as long as we clean the toilet before we leave. That means if we eat gas station hot dogs, one a day for the next five days, I’ll have $30.50 to spend on booze, a large booze allowance, considering Jimmy D filled the Skylark’s trunk with ice and Beast Light, and really, that’s what I buy, anyway, when I’m paying. Cornhole, that narwhal, brought a toothbrush for us to share, so unless we run into a lot of traffic, we should hit the beach by noon tomorrow. Spring Break! SPRING MOTHERFUCKING BREAK!!!

My dedication to Story366 knows no bounds, however, and I’ve brought books with me to read and review. I’m getting a lot of shit, typing in the car like this, especially from Jimmy Z, who is sitting on my lap, meaning the keyboard is on his lap, and I have to wrap my arms around him to type. I told him if he lets me finish, I’ll be on the bottom all the way through Kentucky, which he was all about (not, knowing, of course, we’ll only be in Kentucky for like twenty minutes).

Today’s entry features Michael Griffith, the fine novelist, novellaist, short story writer, editor, and professor. I’ve known Michael and his work for a long time, corresponding here and there, particularly when he spoke up for my work when he was an editor at The Southern Review, and more recently, as he’s taken a couple of my stories for The Cincinnati Review (to fully disclose). He’s also super-cool and is part of that awesome Cincinnati creative writing program, so I was happy to read some of his stories for today’s entry.

And a what a story “Hooper Gets a Perm” is. It’s a long one, over thirty pages (of pretty small type), but it’s worth every word. “Hooper Gets a Perm” is about Martin Hooper, Hooper to his narrator, and the story opens with our protagonist stuck in a chimpanzee cage at a traveling circus/freak show. We don’t know, by the opening scene’s end, why Hooper is in this cage, but know he is there against his will, nobody knows he’s there, and the cage is sized so that Hooper can’t stand up straight. So we have a bathtub story—a story where the protagonist is stuck, for some reason, in one place—and I was hooked immediately.

Griffith doesn’t reveal the secret to Hooper’s predicament any time soon. What we get, instead, are hunks of story (which are numbered) that eventually add up to the answer. The first clue, part 2, is a flashback, detailing how Hooper’s sister Lenore—his devil incarnate—had a pet monkey when they were kids, the spawn of the devil herself. The monkey, Dobie, torments Hooper to no end, and when Hooper (and his loyal mom) complain, Hooper’s jerkwad dad claims that the monkey attacks are toughening Hooper up. The monkey, through no action of Hooper, is killed in a freak accident, and Lenore blames her brother. Vows revenge? Could Hooper’s caging, years later, be related? Sure, but not directly. Dobie’s death is just a piece of the puzzle.

Again, this is a long story, so each numbered section brings out different parts of Hooper’s life that contribute to his humiliating predicament. We see more of Hooper’s childhood, which includes more confidence-destroying moments, but also find out what he does for a living, how he spends his time. In a seemingly different story, Hooper has a life as an adjunct composition professor at a college in Baton Rouge (such as the one Griffith worked at for many years), where he has one friend, a frumpy fellow teacher, and spends his time sleeping with as many of the gay (and not quite gay) males he meets on and around campus as he can. How does all of this lead to the chimp cage? And most of all, where does that title from, what drew me to this particular story in the first place? Is Hooper going to get perm? Maybe, I was thinking, that’s why he’s in a cage, so someone can perm him without his approval. Griffith’s readers will need some patience, but it’s not like they’re checking their watches: Each vignette, each scene, feels like a story in itself, is rich, funny, and perfectly executed. It’s a story unlike any I can recall, how it’s structured, and that, along with Griffith’s dry, dark whit and keen eye for detail, make this story a treasure.

Another turn, another set of completely new characters, and Griffith gets to how Hooper ends up in that cage. It’s not what I’d expected, or anyone could, but it is completely satisfying, each piece along the way making perfect sense. Of course, once we figure out how Hooper got in that cage, Griffith still has to get him out. Or does he? You’ll have to read for yourself to find out.

“Hooper Gets a Perm” is part of the impressive collection Bibliophilia, a novella and stories. It’s an unpredictable, wonderful story, filled with great sentences, descriptions, and syntax. I enjoyed this story as much as any I’ve read this year and will share this with my students, a great example of structure, rate of reveal, and pinpoint sentencing. Plus, it’s hilarious. But that’s only if I get back to teaching—Jimmy D just announced that cops are not only behind us with their lights flashing, but have been there for the last forty miles or so. Hope to see you tomorrow, Story366ers, but if I don’t, you know where you can find me.

Michael Griffith