March 9: “Jakob Loomis” by Jason Ockert

Spring Break! Week on Story366 continues from Daytona Beach! When last I checked in, we had finally reached our destination, but some overzealousness lost us the Skylark, as well as Bizquick, whom we left on the side of the road on Sunday, where he scurried into the bushes to relieve himself, fell asleep, and woke up that night with a fox trying to eat his foot. He made it to a farmhouse in northern Georgia Monday morning, and after a psychotic episode caused by some Walking Dead flashbacks, he got the nice farmers to let him use their iPhone to give us a call. He wanted one of us to swing up and get him, but since we don’t have the Skylark anymore and are all 984 sheets to the wind, we’ve leveled with him, told him his Spring Break might be that Georgia farm, that we can get him on the way home. If the Skylark shows.

Regardless of how much fun we’re having—have any of you ever had a mojito?!—I was able to find a Waffle House and do some reading and writing. Today’s writer, Jason Ockert, is one of those writers who writes a great story every time out, so it was easy to take a break from the madness, get some hashbrowns—scattered, chunked, and capped—and share with you Ockert’s vision, via his fine Dzanc collection, Neighbors of Nothing: Stories.

I’ve read a lot of Ockert before, and one thing I can say, his vision is just a bit distorted when compared to the rest of us (except for David James Keaton—he and Ockert should hang out). A couple of stories in his first book, Rabbit Punches, scared the shit out of me, not only because of the events that go down in the stories, but because I was then aware of this human, walking among us, who would think of such things. I’d read other stories of Ockert’s since, and published one, “Piebald,” in Mid-American Review (which is in Neighbors). Not everything he writes is full of twisted gothic nightmares and grotesque oddities, but how he puts a story together, the line of reasoning that makes him match particular components, speaks to a mind working on another frequency. I’m always truly stunned at the end of every story, and “Jakob Loomis” is no exception.

“Jakob Loomis” tells the story of Therm, a big divorced guy living out in the woods, chopping stuff up with a hatchet when all of a sudden a guy with his hands cuffed behind his back comes crawling out of the brush. Hey, what a great idea for a story! Most writers would love a premise like this, would write it out, see what happens between these two guys. And it would be a good story, a story with a premise like this one. Who couldn’t write a story with that premise?

A Jason Ockert story doesn’t settle for that, though. He throws in a lot more variables, more plots, and more characters. There’s a snake-handling kid, of sorts, whose dad uses him as a sideshow. There’s a cop who shows up, two-thirds of the way through, with a particular agenda. There’s Therm’s backstory. Hanging over everything is this missing kid, Jakob Loomis, whom everyone is kind of looking for, or at least knows is out there, lost and maybe dead. All of these characters get their own little POV sections, telling their stories from their perspectives. You might think that all of this is hard to keep track of, but Ockert’s perfect arrangement and smooth prose make each section obvious, each character a piece of the giant puzzle he’s constructing. Does that puzzle come together at the end? Yes and no. You’ll have to read to find out.

Ockert is as highly skilled at playing director as he is creating all these elements, but it’s the little details that really sell the story, up the suspense, make me want to turn page after page. Therm’s overalls are splattered with blood, which could be from his daily chores (as Tom Waits says, there’s always killin’ you got to do around the farm), or is it someone else’s, maybe Jacob Loomis’? The fact that Therm said he was chopping and accidently halved a snake is not exactly comforting for the handcuffed man, who may have been better off staying with whomever handcuffed him. A long anecdote about a parrot contributes to at least two of the narratives, sets up both characters is unique ways. Ockert is not only director, then, but prop master, costume designer, and choreographer, every element informing every other. He’s really a master of his own brand of chaos, making each story an adventure, an experience.

I love every story I’ve read in Neighbors of Nothing, making Jason Ockert one of those writers who has not, ever, let me down, whose work I’ll gobble up whenever I can. And with that, it’s time to get back to my Spring Break! frolics. Later, some hockey players from the Colorado College of Mines are going to have a drinking contest with this hammerhead shark somebody caught and I don’t want to miss whatever that’s going to be. Not for all the stories in the world.

Jason Ockert