Hey there, Story366!
Today I have a rare treat: I get to hang out with the author I’m featuring in today’s post. I’ve done it before, mostly for writers visiting MSU, people like Trudy Lewis, Phong Nguyen, and Donald Quist. Ron A. Austin is visiting Springfield today and giving a reading at MSU. Of course, this was all planned, me holding off on his book until today’s visit. In fact, that’s why I placed my Black History Month Week so late in the month, so I could center it around Ron’s visit. I’m so looking forward to hanging out with him and hearing him read. It’s one of those days I look forward to, stories and literature and cool writers at the forefront. What else can you ask for?
Because it’s a busy day, I’ll get right into Austin’s book, Avery Colt Is a Snake. A Thief. A Liar, out in 2019 from Southeast Missouri State University Press. I’ve read a large part of this book before—I’ve assigned it to my classes this semester—and I should note that this is a novel-in-stories, that Austin has indeed won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. I’m writing about it here because it’s made up of stories, stories that were in lit mags. The books has also been longlisted for the PEN Bingham Prize for Debut Story Collections. So, Austin is living the good live, receiving accolades for both novels and collections. Good for him.
Since it is a novel-in-stories and I don’t want to give away too much about the later narrative, I am going to focus on an early story, “The Gatecrasher of Hyboria,” the second piece in the collection. Like all the stories in the book, this one focuses on the title characer, Avery Colt, a kid growing up lower-middle class in St. Louis. Avery lives on the second floor of a house with his mom, dad, sister Yell, while his grandparents live on the first floor and run the general store on the corner. Avery attends the Lutheran school in his neighborhood—the Catholic school is too expensive and his parents want the fear of God in him. He has friends, reads comic books, and argues with his sister. Avery, in most ways, is a good kid, maybe a little rambunctious, despite what the book’s title alludes to—Avery wasn’t born a snake, a thief, or a liar.
The trouble in “The Gatecrasher of Hyboria” happens when Avery decides not to focus so much on school, commanding the attention of his teacher, Mr. Dunn. Mr. Dunn is a strict but fair teacher, and really only wants to help Avery achieve his potential—Avery tests well on the standardized batteries and is clearly intelligent. He just doesn’t apply himself. Avery spends more time reading the old Conan comics his dead uncle left in the attic than he does studying (hence the reference to Hyboria in the title, the mythical land of the infamous Barbarian). Mr. Dunn encourages Avery, and when that doesn’t work, he starts pinning notes to Avery’s teachers onto his collar, notes addressed to his parents. Avery is embarrassed as all hell about this, and on the way home, destroys the notes, blowing them up with bottle rockets.
For a while, Avery’s able to get away with it all. He handles the notes sent home, and since he’s more or less a latchkey kid, he gets home first to check the mail and erase the answering machine. Avery is riding high, at least until he comes out of school one day to see his dad and Mr. Dunn talking on the sidewalk. As you might imagine, Avery’s only made everything worse by deceiving his parents.
What happens next is shocking, even brutal, the story switching from a lighter tone to something a lot more serious. I don’t want to reveal what happens on the way home from school, or after, as that would be spoiling the ending. Austin, though, has a keen sense of story, knowing when a tonal shift is appropriate, how to depict a tough scene, a scene that’s going to stay with you, and Avery, for the rest of his life.
I like so much about this story, and this book. I like Avery’s smooth attitude in the early-going, his rebellion, even though he’s kind of a big comic book nerd. Austin has fun with that, Avery’s go-to distraction these other worlds, including Hyboria. And sometimes it’s not so fun, like when a retreat to these fake realms is the best option when he needs to escape. As the stories progress and Avery comes more and more of age, the line between what’s nostalgic and what’s traumatic is blurred. Austin is able to keep it all in balance, too, a testament to his skill as a writer and storyteller.
Avery Colt Is a Snake. A Thief. A Liar is one of the freshest, most entertaining, and most heartfelt books I’ve read so far this year. I’m totally psyched that I get to hear Ron A. Austin read from it tonight, that we get to hang out after. This is a book you should read. This is a great book.