April 21, 2016: “Joe Blow” by Jen Grow

So, Prince is dead. I know a lot of famous people have died this year—the wrestler and adult film star Chyna died today, too—including quite a few musicians, but Bowie and Prince in the same year? Lots of innovation, lots of daring, lots of reinvention, and lots, and lots, and lots of great music between the two. The only artist, still alive, who I’d put in that same category is Madonna. Unlike Bowie and Prince, I don’t have any Madonna albums, don’t have her in my iTunes queue, and don’t listen to her music. But still, I hope she stays healthy (I hope everyone stays healthy, actually), as I’m not sure innovation can’t take another hit of that magnitude.

Story366 soldiers on, though. I was all set to read and write this post much earlier today, but the Prince news did take the wind out of me, and my afternoon was spent listening to Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times—Prince’s best albums, and two of the finest albums ever recorded—and being sad in general. Karen came home from kicking ass at her interview and we were sad together for a couple of hours. What a difference from the exuberance I felt during last night’s post.

At one point, I was thinking I’d pick a book that somehow honored Prince, maybe something from Graywolf or Coffee House, a writer from Minnesota, or even a book that’s purple, but then I grabbed Jen Grow’s collection on my way to my office, more or less forgetting that plan. I’ve had my eye on My Life as a Mermaid (from Dzanc) for a while, and despite being bummed, I dove into into the collection, chin up.

I read the first three stories in My Life as a Mermaid, including the title story, which falls first. It’s a solid story about guilt, basically, a woman living in the suburbs having a hard time dealing with her successes, as her sister is in Honduras, helping victims of a natural disaster, saving lives and such. I like the second story, “Joe Blow,” a bit better, though, so here we go.

One thing I like about “Joe Blow” is the weird point of view it’s told from, first plural. Okay, that’s not that weird, not in 2016, not with all the stories I read these days, but it’s still pretty uncommon. The “we” telling this story is the people who live in the rundownish neighborhood where the story takes place, where these two guys, Larry and Roger, have taken up residency in a broken-down pickup truck parked on a residential street. The two men drink, yell at people, make friends with civil servants, and buy (and imbibe) pills from Carl the pill dealer, who is referred to as “Carl the pill dealer” every time he’s referred to. The collective we that tells the story don’t really care that Larry and Roger have moved into a pickup on their street, because that’s the kind of street they live on. Plus, they get to tell the story of Larry and Roger. These guys are a part of things now, and no one seems to care.

No one, that is, except for Joe, who is a contractor who flips houses, houses in neighborhoods like Larry and Roger’s. Joe is working his butt off to get a return on his investment, and of course, a couple of wasted dudes sleeping right out front in an immovable vehicle isn’t exactly going to make for rising property values. So, the battle commences: Joe trying to get anyone else to give a shit that two homeless guys live out in the street, buy and use drugs, and apparently, piss all over themselves all day, as they never leave.

Eventually, the cops become as annoyed with Joe for trying to get rid of Larry and Roger as they are with Larry and Roger; in fact, they don’t care that Larry and Roger live in the pickup on this street, so Joe is more annoying to them, and they don’t fix the situation. The story is a mini-examination of how things work in this kind of less-than-wealthy neighborhood, the kind that municipal services more or less ignore, the kind where the residents have gotten so used to nobody caring about them, the showdown between Larry and Roger and Joe is just a pageant, a charade, a good yarn to spin. It’s entertaining, Grow employing a whimsical, upbeat voice for her locals, but really, it’s all pretty sad, these two men cast away, such a hullabaloo over the attempt to throw them even further away. Grow really captures that irony, too, deftly handling what could have been mockery, but isn’t. It’s a good story and Grow, in her debut, proves she has the chops to pull it off.

Not much more I want to say here about Prince, as you can check me out on FB for some posts I’ve been making. It does make me wonder about how much of a marker of time Story366 has become for me, as much a diary, calendar, and datebook as it is a delving into contemporary short fiction. Jen Grow, in my mind, will always be tied to what happened today (especially after typing this sentence), which maybe isn’t what Grow would have voted for—why not read her book on the day I win a million dollars in the lottery, or the day war ends forever in the Middle East? That’s how the ball bounced, though, so I’ll endorse her book as my sign-off: Buy My Life as a Mermaid by Jen Grow. It’s a great collection.