February 4, 2020: “Not Everyone Is Special” by Josh Denslow

Hello, Story366!

Today I started my return to the land of the living, feeling a lot better than I did yesterday, actually going into my office and getting some work done. The slog there almost knocked me out, however, and I dozed off at my desk several times. That’s progress, though. I’m proud to say that at no point did I hallucinate. At no point did I yell out uncontrollably. Even the argument with the tiny purple reindeer was short, to the point, and controlled. And really, I could have went off on her if I had so chosen.

It seems like I should mention something about politics today, but it’s all too depressing to delve into too deeply. Yesterday, Iowa had their caucus … and they blew it. As of the writing of this sentence, they still don’t know who won. They had four years to figure this out, knowing they were going first, that they’d have the spotlight, and this is what they came up with. Ugh.

I didn’t watch any of the State of the Union tonight, but from what I’m seeing on social media, it’s a travesty. The worst part of it is, the bigger the joke it is, the more those particular supporters are going to eat it up. Remember, all of the buffoonery is just him kidding around, right? Intentionally acting like an idiot to piss off the left. If only we were smart enough to figure that out and not be so ashamed of the direction our country has gone. Silly us.

For today’s post, I read from Josh Denslow‘s 2018 collection, Not Everyone Is Special, out from 7.13 Books. I’ve seen Denslow’s work here and there for a little bit now, but was glad to sit down and really get to know it tonight.

The back cover blurb of Not Everone Is Special compares Denslow’s work to George Saunders’ (meets Richard Linklater …), and after reading several stories from this book, I see it. It’s not only the high-concept feel of the pieces—especially found in Saunders’s first two collections—but there’s also a sense of defeatism dripping off the characters, too. The protagonists in stories like “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “The 400-Pound CEO,” and “The Wavemaker Falters” are all good guys, yet they know they’re living in absurd worlds; most of all, they know they’re fucked, that in an absurd world, nice guys not only finish last, but will probably die horrible, pointless deaths. I definitely get that feeling from Denslow’s stories, that his heroes are the smartest guys in the room, but that only makes them realize how truly meaningless their existences are. It’s the worst kind of existentialism. Even Sartre might think these writers sadistic.

Such is the case, to some degree, with Cameron, the protagonist/narrator of “Not Everyone Is Special.” At the outset of this title story, Cameron has been enrolled in a self-help class that aids people in finding their Power. This is a world where everyone has a superpower, only some people take longer than others to discover theirs; 5 percent of the population never finds theirs at all. Cameron is in his thirties and still hoping to find his, for a variety of reasons, many of which stem from losing his wife, who quickly starts dating someone with his power firmly in tow.

The story is light compared to other stories in the collectioin, even if Cameron has an apocalyptic view of his outcome. With this premise, with Denslow’s use of playful, clever details, it’s hard to look at this as all doom and gloom. Cameron has two little girls, whom he gets to see on weekends, and despite his growing anxiety, he’s a good dad. One of the girls is only 12 and has had her power—invisibility—forever, and Denslow has a lot of fun with that.

Denslow’s also good at pacing in this piece, balancing Cameron’s therapy sessions with the time he spends with his daughters and also getting to know Billy Ray. Billy Ray was in Cameron’s therapy group, and at the end of his very first day, he discovered his power: controlling birds. Billy Ray is a good ol’ boy and loud and unkempt, but Cameron not-so-secretly hates him because he was able to find his Power—as stupid as it is—so quickly. Like with the daughter’s disappearing, Denslow takes full advantage of his creation, wringing Billy Ray and his bird Power for all its comedic worth.

Eventually, the story comes down to a choice for Cameron: Will he keep basing his happiness on discovering his Power, or will he move on and just be good at what he’s good at? The story is a metaphor for any feeling of insecurity or inadequacy, a parable to indeed stop crying about what’s not on your plate and feast on what you have instead. Denslow is a skilled writer and takes “Not Everyone Is Special” to a surprising, satisfying end. I love this story.

I read several other pieces in the book, including “Too Late for a Lot of Things,” “My Particular Tumor,” and “Crossing Guard,” and see a lot of parallels in theme, a lot of overlap. In Not Everyone Is Special, not everyone is special, but instead they have to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt, have to find a way to get over or around it. Josh Denslow is skilled at telling these stories, entertaining us with wit, sarcasm, and above all, heart. It’s an excellent, memorable debut.

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