September 20, 2020: “The Teeth of the Comb” by Osama Alomar, Translated by C.J. Collins with the Author

Happy Sunday, Story366!

Today I got back from my Scout campout and am chilling out, watching the Cubs, and just getting ready for the week. After the campout, we actually took a day trip to Joplin to hike in a specific nature center we like, then explore an eatery downtown. As it turns out, just about everything in downtown Joplin is closed on Sundays, so we ended up getting burgers and dogs at a food truck. It was pretty good, all we really expected from a food truck, from burgers and dogs.

Anyway, back to the Scout trip. This campout was the climbing campout, and as I detailed in my prewritten post from yesterday, I didn’t climb. I hadn’t thought it was a good idea, and when I saw people actually doing it up close, my mind was not changed. I’d never seen people rock climb before, except in movies, and you don’t realize how high these people go until you’re standing below them. You probably know more about rock climbing than I do, but if you don’t, they take these ropes, string them through rings that are bolted into the rock, and then attach them to the climber. Then the climber goes for it, putting their fingers and toes into wedges, making their way up the natural ladder to the top. The “beginner” climb was a full fifty feet in the air, and I watched Scouts aged 10 through 16 scale that climb like spider monkeys. It’s pretty amazing to watch, on top of terrifying.

But that’s just the way up; the real trick is getting down. This is when the climber has to put full faith into this rope, attached to this harness. While it’s posible to climb down the way you came up, step by step, you’re supposed to repel down. This means you put all your weight—and your life—into this rope and the harness that’s wrapped around your hips and thighs. You can then bounce down, gliding along the rope, hitting your feet on the rock, or you can walk down, backwards, your body perpendicular with the wall, a sideways Lionel Richie.

Of course, nobody fell from our group, or any group—this would be a very different post if they had. Climbers, in general, believe in their gear. The instructor who put up the rings and ropes and taught our guys to climb probably said, “I trust this gear with my life” twenty times over the course of the day, and the Scouts (and other parents) who climbed had no problem doing the same. A few Scouts couldn’t make that commitment, though—they got up to the top, but when it was time to lean back and just let the gear take them down, they froze. They waited until the instructor guy got up there and walked them down, step by step. I felt for these boys, up there, fifty feet above a solid rock floor, asked to do something that we are not supposed to do: let go from way up high. No shame in that, guys. You went up there, and now you’re down. Mission accomplished.

Yesterday, I listed reasons why I wasn’t going to climb. Now that I’ve seen it, I can add another: I don’t think I would have been able to get down. I saw a hundred people climb all kinds of rocks yesterday, up to over a hundred feet. Their gear was never in question. They looked like they were having a good time. But if I was up ten stories, and they told me to trust a skinny little rope to carry big-ol’ me to safety, I’d freeze, too. In fact, I’d still be up there.

Upon my return, I read from Syrian author Osama Alomar‘s 2017 collection of shorts and microfictions, The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories, out from New Directions Publishing and translated from the Arabic by C.J. Collins with the author. I’d not read any of Alomar’s work before today, and it was a real treat getting to know this author.

The Teeth of the Comb is a book of flash fiction and includes well over a hundred stories. In fact, the book is put together unlike any other book I’ve reviewed here, let alone read before. There is no table of contents, and whoever designed this book didn’t hit “Insert: Page Break” at the end of each story—when one story is over, a line is skipped, then we get the next title of the story in bold, then another line skip, then story. Repeat over a hundred times. The stories just run into each other, and for some patches of micros, which are often only a sentence long, you might find four or five pieces on a single page. To organize everything, there’s an index of titles at the end, just in case you’re looking for something. So, not the standard colophon, for sure, but that’s okay—I liked reading these one after another, wolfing them down with no white space to fill me up.

I picked the title story to focus on here, as I like it, but also so I’ll get more hits when someone’s looking up Alomar and his book online (which is usually why I try to pick the title story, fyi …). “The Teeth of the Comb” is the penultimate story in the collection (tracked down by that handy index), and is a good story. Not to give too much away—this one’s only four sentences long—but Alomar here personifies some teeth on a comb, and, well, that carries the first half of the story. What happens when the human owner of said comb picks up said comb and attempts to use it, post-personification? That you’ll have to find out for yourself.

“The Teeth of the Comb” does something that Alomar does often in this book, and that’s give life and personality and consciousness to something that normally wouldn’t have it. “Quicksand” and “The Feather and the Wind” and “Tears Without a Flame” all do this, too, giving perspective and sentience to quicksand, a feather, and a candle, respectively, all in one-sentences stories. That sets a whimsical tone for the book—for those stories, anyway—and gets me thinking to how I sometimes think, like when I wonder if the other steak knives from our wood block are jealous because I keep using the one all the way to the right first. It’s that kind of thinking that makes me feel akin to Alomar, to those particular stories he presents here.

Alomar has other tricks, though, that keep all these stories running. Some stories are turns of phrases, like “Swamp,” which uses swamp imagery and such to form a pun.

The first story, “Journey of Life,” feels like a bible parable, as it follow a character as they walk through life, looking for answers for their various questions; Alomar can get philosophical, not too mention spiritual, with the best of them.

“Arrest” is a magical story that reads like a fable (as a lot of magically real stories do), this one about a king who’s tired of the thunder and lightning, so he has it studied, then arrested. This means no more rain for his people’s crops or livestock, meaning everything dies, people turning to cannibalism at their eleventh hour. Still, the king is pretty stoked he took care of that lightning proplem.

As you might guess, The Teeth of the Comb is a creative, witty book, a lot of fun to read, maybe the most fun I’ve had covering a book in quite some time. Osama Alomar gives insight to the insightless, sets you to thinking on the unthinkable, and … combs the uncombable? In any case, this book is a real pleasure, be it short story, fiction, witty barbs, or just cleverly put-together words.

September 19, 2020: “Russian Roulette” by Geovani Martins, Translated by Julia Sanches

Good Saturday to you, Story366!

Only for me, it’s not Saturday: It’s Friday! Yesterday, I noted that I’m camping this weekend with my oldest boy and the Scouts, with no real Internet connection promised. So I don’t lose a day or miss a post, I’m constructing this yesterday—let that sink in for a second—immediately after reading and posting my previous entry. Wow!

The camping trip we’re on right now is the climbing campout, where we head to some rocky wilderness area and have certified experts assist the boys in climbing. It’s the kind with ropes and harnesses—not Tom Cruise hanging by four fingers off the side of a cliff—the helmeted boys inching up a bit at a time. There’s a merit badge at the end of this stick, and if the boys scale a few different walls, of different heights, they can claim that reward.

Me? I’m out. I’m not exactly the light and spry sort that does well with this kind of thing. The idea of me getting hooked into this equipment—if they even have something that would accommodate my size—is a bit silly. For one, every second I’d be doing it would take time away from the boys’ opportunities. For two, I don’t see me succeeding in this type of activity, and having the entire troop and a bunch of parents stare at me, even cheer me on, as I struggled. Sounds like a nightmare. So, no thanks.

On top of that, I’ve also retired from X-Games-type activities. I’m 47, not in tremendous shape (but getting there), and I really have no business, as a co-head of a household, to be putting my physical safety on the line like that. The Karen and I aren’t so extreme that we won’t take the same plane together at the same time—we know couples like that—but I also don’t need to be falling from twenty feet in the air, breaking all kinds of bones, or landing on my head. We’re really in the prime of our lives now, the house and jobs and family we want, and don’t need some unnecessary accident or tragedy messing with that. A good friend of mine, a few years ago, got lured onto a skateboard by a few students outside her building, only to end up horizontal for six months, an ankle and leg shattered, pins in her bones, a lot of pain just for a quick thrill. Just after New Year’s, my brother-in-law, at work, fell off a man-lifter while changing some lightbulbs, and ended up in a facility for five months, learning to walk again. Do I need that type of thing? No. Neither does my family.

So, let the nimble, athletic, energetic kids—of modest body weight—climb the rocks. I’ll be at the bottom, cheering them on, hoping I don’t have to catch them if they fall.

Today (or yesterday), I read from Brazilian writer Giovani Martins‘ 2018 collection, The Sun on My Head, translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches and put out by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I’ve not read Martins’ work before, another author discovered here. Let’s talk about his stories.

The opener, “Lil Spin,” is about a small-time pot dealer just moving about in his daily routine. There’s a lot of things going on that you would expect, such as his knowledge of various kinds of narcotics, as well as some tragedies, losing friends and family to rival dealers, as well as to the police. What’s really interesting about this piece is the language, as Matins provides a steady diet of slang, but antiquated—”crib,” “old lady”—and some terms I had to look up to understand, terms not translated from Portuguese because there is no translation. I couldn’t help but think about Julia Sanches, the translator, trying to find the equivalent in English of the language Martins employs here—like what “nickel and dimed” must have been in its original.

“Spiral” is about a young man who likes to hunt people, in that he likes to follow and intimidate them. It starts when he’s no longer a kid, when kids like the kind he used to be are scared of him and his friends, older and more confident, as they walk by. Then he does it on purpose, following a flustered lady, on and off, until she desperately ducks into a café, just to avoid him. He’s not looking to hurt anyone, not really, but loves the power of this menacing act. By the end of the story, he’s a pro, planning to stalk an entire family, even getting close to learn their names, to use information against him. When the patriarch of the family finds a way to fight back, he believes it’s his turn to elevate his game as well.

“Russian Roulette” is the story I’m focusing on today, but I liked all the stories I read rather equally. This story’s about a young kid who lives in a one-room house (plus a bathroom) with his dad. His dad just got a new job as a security guard, and as part of it, has brought home a .38. In a one-room house, there’s no way for the dad to hide this fact, or the means to properly store this weapon, so it just goes in the drawer. As you might guess, that gun becomes a huge temptation for our hero.

It doesn’t take long for the kid to seek out that gun in the drawer. He waits until his dad is asleep and takes it out, playing with it in a variety of frightening ways. He loads and unloads it—who knows if he’s doing that correctly, right? He points it, unloaded, at various things, including his sleeping father. He practices holstering it in his pants—this actually gives him an erection, which scares him, what makes him put it away that night.

Soon, the father leaves the house, not for a shift, but for other errands. The kid is suddenly alone in the house with the gun. Playing with it as he had before doesn’t do it for him anymore, so he takes it out of the house, heads over to see his friends. The kids are, as you’d expect, rather taken by this new toy, this actual gun, with bullets, one of the comrades has introduced to the fray. They do the same things—load and unload, point, etc.—and when they’re bored with that, the kids starts telling stories, like how his dad had to kill a guy with the gun.

When the kid gets home, he sees his dad’s shoes outside and assumes he’s in for it, that his dad will see him and the gun gone at the same time, that he’ll be grounded for forever, if not worse. I won’t reveal what happens when he goes inside, as that’s revealing too much. The real tension in the story, of course, is whether or not this gun is going to go off, is going to shoot the dad or some kid or the kid in the face or through the heart, that the gun is going to do what it’s meant to do: kill someone. That tension really carries the story, but the youthful wonder, how much this kid loves this gun, also makes the story really sing.

I very much enjoyed my first read of Geovani Martins’ work, the stories in The Sun on My Head offering a unique voice, a perspective with which I had not been familiar, and some entertaining and empathetic characters to boot.

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September 18, 2020: “She Was Like That” by Kate Walbert

Good morning, Story366!

Today is a day of rushing. Today I have three Zoom meetings, all in the afternoon, and by 5:30, I have to meet up with Boy Scouts and take them on a weekend campout. Since I’ll be gone until Sunday, that also means I have to write tomorrow’s post and schedule it for tomorrow, as the campsite in Arkansas I’m going to doesn’t have reliable service. I also have a grocery pick-up and have to pack the car up for the trip. So, this is going to be a short intro, me explaining why this is such a short intro. There you go!

Today I read from Kate Walbert‘s 2019 collection, She Was Like That: New and Selected Stories, out from Scribner. This, as you might guess, has some stories from Walbert’s previous books, plus some stories never collected before. It’s all new to me, though, as I’ve not read Walbert’s previous collections, and really only know her name because she’s published a lot of books and has that kind of reputation. So for post #1 today, let’s talk some Kate Walbert.

Walbert has a pretty distinct style, a style that you’ll pick up on as soon as you delve into her stories. And that’s an apt way to segue into this description, as there’s definitely a feeling, when starting a story, that you’re jumping into the middle of things. Walbert isn’t one for exposition at the start of her tales, telling us where we are, what’s going on, or even who the players are. We sort of merge into traffic with these characters, pick up with a protagonist, who’s in situation, living out a certain task on a certain day, and from there we need to pick up what’s going on. It takes a few pages, sometimes, to feel adjusted, to feel comfortable in these stories, as you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a conversation, without much context, in a place that’s unclear, talking to people to whom you haven’t been introduced. I think this is the strength of Walbert’s work, what sets her aside from most authors—it’s a different way to tell a story, as if wondering into someone’s head as they’re on some adventure, in some predicament, and trying to guess what’s going on, what’s going to happen, and what any particular protagonist is all about.

The most forthcoming story I read, “M&M World,” is first up in the book. This one actually lays out the mission of the story early on: Ginny, our protagonist, has been asked by her daughters to take them to M&M World in Times Square. She’s avoided it for a long time, but she’s promised, and finally relents. She and the two girls, Olivia and Maggie, head off on the long journey, traversing the dangers of New York City streets and other temptations; they have to stop for ice cream, have to pet the Central Park horses, all of which drive Ginny to distraction. During this trip, we’re mostly in Ginny’s head, as she considers past family adventures, and especially the recent divorce from her husband, known only as “the girls’ father.” When they finally arrive at their desired tourist stop, the worst-case scenario goes down: Ginny loses one of the girls in the store, so many people, so many distractions, all on top of what she’s got going on inside her head.

“Esperanza” is much more mysterious as you enter into the story. This one’s about Esperanza, aka, Baby, a woman who spends the early part of the story considering various parts of her life, including some time spent down in Chilé. As the story moves forward, we realize that Baby is in a therapy session, the in-patient kind, and isn’t exactly there by choice. We meet various characters inside the facility, including her mother, who visits her, as well as different people from her past as she muddles through her thoughts. Eventually, we see poor Baby hooked up to electrodes—it’s that type of facility—her mother watching as the world tries to make sense of her.

The title story, “She Was Like That,” also puts us en medias res, this time with Sharon Peterson. Sharon is driving through New York City with Ginny (and yes, I wondered if this was the same Ginny from “M&M World,” but got no definitive answer). She and Ginny chat, but by this time, I’ve already come to understand that a lot of the conversation is between Sharon and herself.

Along the way, a woman named Miranda, along with a baby strapped to her chest, join the fray. It’s around this time that I realized Sharon is driving for some sort of taxi or shuttle service, and these people are only her recent acquaintances, her passengers. Yes, Walbert treats their conversation as if they’re old friends, the friendly banter serving as a good backdrop for Sharon’s thoughts.

These thoughts focus a lot on Virginia Woolf, it turns out, as Sharon seems to be somewhat of an expert. In fact, as the story moves onward, we get the hint that Sharon isn’t merely a shuttle driver, but also a literature professor at a woman’s college. Even further, it’s implied, subtly or not, that she’s no longer in possession of that post—might be why she’s shuttling strangers to the bus station in the middle of the week.

We meet a couple more passengers as we lose others, thus the life of a shuttle driver—friends are frequent but fleeting. The passengers add their own little tales, their own personalities, all mixing in with what we see from Sharon’s interior. And again, there’s not a lot of exposition going on—we’re just floating in and out of the conversation as we get flashes of Sharon’s life, practically her stream of consciousness, as she tackles her day. Sharon’s destination? Wherever her new friends dictate.

Kate Walbert’s approach to storytelling is unique, harkening back to Modernist masters like Joyce and Faulkner in her She Was Like That. I enjoyed those authors’ books, what it was like to venture inside the minds of their various characters, and Walbert does her best approximation of that here. I like reading stories like that, almost like a maze you have to enter into. It’s a good journey, finding your way to the center, finding what makes these characters distinct. Time well spent with these stories today.

September 17, 2020: “Here Is What You Do” by Chris Dennis

Hello there, Story366!

I’m on campus, working in my office today. One of my classes met at two, though nobody showed up—I used the time to sit in the classroom, by myself, and do my reading. This is the second time this week nobody showed up to a class. On Monday, I had zero and one students show for those two classes. So, my “blended, but optional” modality has basically shifted to all-online. I might get more students next week—that half of the alphabet seems more eager to attend—but it seems as though almost everyone has settled into the online portion of the blended schedule, and isn’t too eager to run to campus and experience things live. I’m not sure why I thought students would want to come when they absolutely don’t have to—several did email me this summer and say they were looking forward to being around people again—but I guess I’m surprised that it took only this long for them to abandon those feelings and just do their thing, on their own time, at their own place. I don’t mind—I totally understand—but at the same time, I wouldn’t mind talking to live bodies, either. All this onlineness makes me feel distant from this batch of students, so really, actual faces and voices and interaction might actually reenergize me. But like always, we’ll see.

Today I read from Chris Dennis‘ 2019 collection, Here Is What You Do, out from Soho Press. I don’t think I’ve read any thing by Dennis before, but do remember this book coming out, and to some acclaim. I’m extremely happy to have this book and be talking about it today.

The title story is the first story and it’s a pretty tremendous story. This one’s about Ricky, a twenty-something former high school English teacher from southern Indiana who finds himself in a maximum-security prison in Texas. Ricky gets picked up at the border, smuggling in containers of pills, hidden under his spare tire in the trunk. He also has a bunch in his pockets, and his body, making him high as shit as he tries to get back into America. Probably what got him tagged for a search.

Ricky’s story unfolds slowly—it’s a thirty-pager—alternating between the time he’s spending in prison and what got him there. What Dennis is able to establish right away is the immediacy of the situation, and then the reality. One moment Ricky’s in Mexico, probably failing at his quest to find pills, and all of a sudden, he’s pulled over. Then being arrested. Then in lock-up. Then on trial. Then in prison. There’s no drama in any of this, except the drama of the situation itself—this guy got caught, is going to jail, and nobody is there to help him.

Ricky’s story is sad, don’t get me wrong. He was a normal guy, a history buff, living with his Granny in Indiana. Then he got a tooth ache and didn’t got to the dentist in time. The doctor gave him some pain pills and by the third day, he was hooked. From there, he started faking injuries at ERs and doctor’s offices all around town, having his prescriptions filled at different pharmacies. Then Ricky got sloppy—he was high constantly—and someone noticed, and he got cut off. Hence, his desperation to go to Mexico, to some backroom pharmacy, to stock up for as long as needed.

But that’s the backstory. Most of the time, we’re with Ricky, in his cell, with him and Donald. Donald’s his cellmate, a guy in the fourth year of a fifteen-year stint for manslaughter. Dennis continues to be blunt with what happens, almost matter-of-fact, as it’s soon clear that Ricky is being protected by Donald, that if he wasn’t, he’d be on the market. Donald serves that role for Ricky, keeps his sentence—seven months, but he’ll only serve four—manageable.

Only after a month, the relationship between Donald and Ricky starts to change. One night, after lights out, Donald asks Ricky if he’d like to join him down on the bottom bunk. It’s at this point we get a whole other backstory from Ricky, sort of his Kinsey scale, finding out about a college girlfriend, his celebacy since, and his curiosity for men. Ricky goes down to the bottom bunk, and services Donald, no threat or violence necessary. Then it’s back up to the top bunk, because, as Donald points out, he isn’t Ricky’s boyfriend.

The story really becomes about their relationship, which might be the most complex relationship I’ve ever read in a story—and that’s saying something. Donald protects Ricky, plays cards with him, even treats him like a son, giving advice. But he also shoves Ricky’s face into his crotch and takes him from behind. Ricky, without any real love in his life, starts to fall for Donald. Ricky’s looming release hangs over everything, as both Donald and Ricky react to the idea of Ricky suddenly leaving, never to see Donald again.

I’ve also only mentioned Ricky’s Granny, the woman who raised him (we don’t get any info on what happened to the parents). It’s her car that Ricky took down to Mexico, a car that has been impounded and probably won’t ever be seen by Ricky or Granny again. Granny is straight-up losing it, or perhaps in denial, as her letters to Ricky indicate a belief in a separate car thief, a crook that she and Ricky disparage together. Even more scary is her belief that Ricky is not in prison for drugs, but in Pittsburgh, in a new teaching job. This becomes especially problematic when Ricky wants her to wire him money, to Texas, to get home, which Granny simply doesn’t understand, despite the fact she mails him letters at the same address.

I won’t reveal the end or resolution of “Here Is What You Do,” a real masterpiece of pacing, reveals, and stark reality. It’s a second-person story, too, by the way, making all the of things happening to Ricky so much more personal. It’s a helluva story.

“In Motel Rooms” is from the perspective of Coretta Scott King, in the final period of Martin’s life. Her life is turned upside down, not only by her husband’s fame, but his constant travel schedule, his indiscretions, and the FBI, which keep a constant eye on him. There’s even a strong belief that their home, phones, and friends have all been bugged. That instills a paranoid, unsettled feeling in the narrative, giving a perspective on an icon not quite seen before.

“Dioramas” is the last story, another long one, this one about Pam. Pam is a house wife out in rural somewhere back in 1989, living her 80siest life to the fullest. She cleans her house with her Walkman on, first-comeback-era Cher blasting into her ears. When she’s not partaking in 80s pop culture, she’s having rough role-play sex with her husband, who poses as various 80s figures, including Marky Mark and Luther Vandross. But she’s really obsessed with Cher, so much so, when a Native girl named Tia moves across the street and befriends her daughter, Pam feels compelled to bond with her, linked by Cher’s half-Cherokee (claimed) ancestry. Eventually, Pam’s erratic behavior becomes more than quirky, and things come to a head when her family, along with Tia, form an intervention, hoping they can get Pam back into therapy before it’s too late.

I absolutely love the stories in Chris Dennis’ 2019 debut, Here Is What You Do, powerful, strange, risqué stories that aren’t afraid to go anywhere, to make their characters do anything. People make bad choices, or bad choices happen to them, resulting in horrible twists, and Dennis seems to be particularly skilled at capturing these folks at these moments, their lives on the fringe, their entire existences ready to blow up . Dennis brings us in close to these people, puts us inside their heads, so we can go along for the ride. This is exciting, masterful storytelling.

September 16, 2020: “Tender” by Sofia Samatar

Greetings, Story366!

Boy, it’s hard to get to the gym. We swam five days of seven last week, then on Sunday, went for a long hike. We’d made a silent pact to never take more than a day off between workouts, but then the regular week hits us and it happens: We had two days off between workouts. The boys have school all day on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the Karen has production for the newspaper those same days. Add in our regular Scout meeting on Monday night and the oldest boy’s marching band practice on Tuesdays, and it’s darn-near impossible to get to the gym. It doesn’t help that our gym doesn’t have very long hours, open from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., which eliminates any sort of pre-school or post-meeting trips. We got there today, though, swam our laps, stretched out, and feel good. But wow, life is tough sometimes when you’re trying to make good decisions.

Today’s post led me to Tender by Sofia Samatar, out in 2017 from Small Beer Press. This is my first reading of Samatar’s work, which I always look forward to. So, here goes.

Tender is cut up into two halves, one entitled “Tender Bodies,” the other “Tender Settings.” The first story in the first section is “Selkie Stories Are for Losers.” This one is about a young woman who declares, up front, she doesn’t like selkie stories, that is, stories about magical seal creatures that can take human identities, from Irish/Scottish folklore. She isn’t that forthcoming, though, just stating she doesn’t like stories about selkies. She also works at a restaurant, owned by a family where she’s practically the only non-family member working there. She bonds with one of the owner’s nieces, Mona, as both of them have Mom issues. Mona’s mom comes into the restaurant and cries all the time, as does Mona, while our narrator’s mom has left her, and her dad. It’s implied, at points, that not liking selkie stories and mom leaving just might be related, but again, Samatar isn’t that forthcoming.

“Ogres of East Africa” is a list story, as we get a composite of East African ogres—the story delivers on its title—along with some description. The ogres aren’t really categorized by big heads and sharp teeth and hairy ears as much as behavioral traits, making it a pretty interesting inventory. The narrator, Alibhai, is getting this information from a Somali woman named Mary, who seems to have expertise on local ogres. The reason for the list? Alibhai’s boss wants to go on expedition, hunt and collect as many of these ogres as he can. It’s a weird triangle, this relationship, stressed by what Alibhai has to do, what ends will come from these means.

The title story, “Tender,” leads off that second section and is about a tender. A tender, in this story, is someone who does nuclear and other dangerous radioactive testing because they are already exposed, already expiring. The tender in this story—we don’t get a name—works at the St. Benedict Radioactive Materials Containment Center. The job? Live in a dome, airtight and radiation-proof, of course, and check materials before they’re buried, deep, deep, deep into the ground, forever. Sounds like quite a life, right? At least they’ll give our tender whatever they want, slip it in through decontaminator, luxury item or need.

One point the story does not cover is how sick, or not sick, our tender truly is. They live in the dome, work, and narrate, but there’s no sign of decline, mention of illness, or fear of death. Maybe all that’s implied and unnecessary? I would think so. But I can’t imagine that this gig is a long-laster—tenders probably don’t get the fifty-year gold watch at a retirement party at St. Benedict’s.

What the narrator does narrate, however, is another list, this time of quotes by famous nuclear scientists, as well as tidbits about these pioneers of energy and destruction. It’s like name-dropping, in some ways, or maybe call-outs, everyone from the Curies to Fermi to Oppenheimer get their words or story relayed, at least briefly. So, it’s a bit of a mini-encyclopedia of who’s who in the Manhattan Project, and their precursors.

There’s also a relationship, between our tender and a hurt friend, a friend who visits once a month, but is hurt over what’s become of our tender, and their friendship. The hurt friend speaks through the glass, but their relationship is obviously strained. The hurt friend is also recovering from an injury—”hurt” doesn’t only mean emotionally. I suspect, without being able to point to a particular line, that the hurt friend may have been more than a friend.

“Tender” is about a person who’s stuck in a situation and has nothing but time, time to consider the nature of the world and of their predicament. It’s an interesting character, an interesting situation, and an interesting perspective. That makes for a good story.

Sofia Samatar’s first book of stories, Tender, offers a unique voice. Her stories, often told out of sequence and without heed to traditional narrative structure, are smart and challenging, but shine with cleverness and subtle humor. I enjoyed these stories today, time with the book well spent.

September 15, 2020: “Richard: You’re in the Wrong Place” by Joseph Harris

How goes it, Story366?

News just came in that my son’s high school’s football team is under quarantine for the next two weeks. They are shutting things down. For my son, that means no marching band this Friday, as there will be no game at which to perform.

Good for his school, cutting things off when it was time. The same can’t be said for LSU, defending national champions of the college world, who just reported today that 95 percent of their players have or have had COVID since June. 95 percent! The coach, Ed Orgeron, said this: “‘Hopefully that once you catch it, you don’t get it again,’ he said. ‘I’m not a doctor. I think they have that 90-day window, so most of the players that have caught it, we do feel like they’ll be eligible for games.'” He’s referring to a ninety-day loophole, where the NCAA has somehow made it a rule that if a player tests positive, he doesn’t have to get tested again for ninety days.

Coach Orgeron is taking full advantage of this, as he seems to be sticking to this protocol, whether his players are sick or not. Seems like Coach Orgeron is only concerned with whether or not his players are eligible to play, not if they should play. He seems pretty willy-nilly here with just how sick these young men have been, whether or not there have been any long-term effects, and most importantly, how these cases have affected their community—who else has gotten sick? How much has this spread across the university and Baton Rouge community? He doesn’t seem very concerned with that, just whether or not his guys will be ready to suit up. Here’s the article I got this from:

https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/29892180/lsu-coach-ed-orgeron-most-team-contracted-coronavirus

Maybe Ed Orgeron is being misquoted, or his quotes are taken out of context. Perhaps he went on to talk about that, about the long-term effects of the virus; note, the long-term effects are what the Big Ten was worried about when they postponed the season, not the disease, but how it’s screwing with young people in the afteryears. That’s not come up in this article, however, and I wonder if this college team—unlike our local high school team—is thinking straight. Seems like they’re worried about suiting up, about fielding a team, and defending that title.

Time will tell, but I’m pretty incensed that a college community could be struck with this many cases and for business to go on as usual. The fact that the teams don’t even have to report their numbers is terrifying. Come on, universities. We’re supposed to be the smart ones. Let’s act like it.

Today I read from Joseph Harris’ brand-new collection, You’re in the Wrong Place, out today from Wayne State University Press as part of their Made in Michigan Writers Series. We had the pleasure of publishing the title story, “You’re in the Wrong Place,” in Moon City Review just last year, so I’m more than happy to see Harris’ whole collection come to light. Let’s investigate.

You’re in the Wrong Place is a collection of interrelated stories, each story following the life of a laid-off Dynamic Fabricating employee. Dynamic Fabricating was a fictional manufacturing plant in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale. It prospered as a manufacturer of auto parts, and when that went south, stayed open fulfilling defense contracts. Early on, we get the real-time revelation that the government has not renewed their contract, thus sending every employee into desperation. Also, the stories inside are all titled by the protagonists’ names, but are subtitled something else, the titles that Harris published them under in literary magazines. So, that’s the setup.

The first story in the book is “Jack,” subtitled “Would You Rather,” and here is where we go from fully operational Dynamic to shutdown. The story begins with Jack at a bar on Nine Mile, on his birthday, drinking it up with his fellow linemen. He gets super-drunk and wakes up on some off time with Jess, his fiancé, ready to head out of town for the weekend. The couple is young and in love and living the good life, staying in a cabin, going out to dinner, drinking a lot, and having loving sex. It’s a last dance, as it turns out, because when Jack gets home, there’s a message from his boss to come in on Monday. There the bad news is delivered, that there’s two to three months of work left, at best. As Jack’s career dissipates, so does his relationship with Jess—who also works at Dynamic, in an office—the stress of being broke and losing everything to much to bear.

Jumping to the end of the book, “Pete: Devil’s Night” skips to the next generation of the Dynamic fallout. It features Pete and some of his friends, high school kids whose fathers all lost their jobs at Dynamic, then promptly left town, left their families. Pete and his friends and their moms survive on minimum-wage jobs, wondering what their going to do for a living, if they’re ever going to escape the poverty and desolation of post-shutdown Detroit. An opportunity comes their way—on October 30, Devil’s Night—an older guy they kinda know offering a chance for mischief and cash. This isn’t the last story in the book—there’s a novella-length piece after—but it’s a fitting ending, too, as the opportunity is burning down a certain abandoned factory, torching it for someone who would benefit from its demise. It’s a symbolic way to end this narrative, at least penultimately.

The title story, or “Richard: You’re in the Wrong Place” officially, is about Richard, or Dick, another guy who’s lost his job when Dynamic shut down. He and some of his Dynamic coworkers have scored a transitional job—that’s a nice way of putting “real step down”—of mowing and weed-whacking local properties for the bank. These are the properties that have been foreclosed on, businesses and homes that have not endured the shutdown. They are the homes of their coworkers, the ones not lucky enough to score this landscaping gig. They are keeping the properties nice for resale, so they’re literally adding salt to the womb, betraying their own in exchange for their own survival.

By the way, the title comes from a game the guys play, or at least a catchphrase they like to repeat. It comes from a factory they need to maintain, a sign on the door that says, “If you’re looking for work, you’re in the wrong place.” From that moment on, whenever someone wants something, be it a relationship, quiet, empathy, whathaveyou, one of the guys employs it. “If you’re looking for solidarity, you’re in the wrong place.” “If you’re looking for love, you’re in the wrong place.” Etcetera. Like it would in real life, the joke goes through a cycle, from funny, to old, to cruel, to funny again, them parodying themselves, for irony, by the end of the story.

Harris makes the most out of the guys’ relationship, showing them at work and at play; all of these characters, in all of these stories, hit the local watering hole after work, or after not-work, indulging in vices despite having no resources to do so. Everyone drinks. Everyone smokes. Everyone smokes pot. They buy and scratch lottery tickets. What used to be after-work indulgence probably becomes their slow doom, if they don’t go broke first.

Richard and his crew eventually run into a house owned by someone they’re way too close to, that confrontation the climax of the story. It’s followed by a quick resolution, which in this situation, isn’t much of a resolution. This situation doesn’t get better, if you aren’t up on Detroit economics, as these factories don’t ever get going again, all these people don’t get their jobs back, and all the relationships that are rendered as a result are unlikely to be resolved.

Joseph Harris’ collection You’re in the Wrong Place debuts today and introduces a talented new voice to the book world. His stories are effectively real and heart-rending, one after another, Harris chronicling a sad, ongoing chapter of Americana. The fact he’s able to make something fresh out of each one of these tales—every character facing the exact same dilemma—is a testament to his talent. Congratulations, Joseph, on your book birthday!

September 14, 2020: “Animal Wife” by Lara Ehrlich

Happy Monday, Story366!

Yesterday, I wrote a lot about the Chicago Bears and the NFL, how I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch or not this season. During all that, there was also the unmentionable going on: a no-hitter-in-progress by Alec Mills, starting pitcher for the Cubs. If you know baseball, you know it’s super-superstitious to talk about it while it’s happening—one peep can send bad mojo the wrong way, thus ending said no-hitter. So, while I was typing yesterday’s post, I could have included info on the no-hitter, but didn’t, as I’m not an asshole who breaks up no-hitters by talking about them in his short story blog.

Alec Mills concluded his no-hitter, a historic day for the Cubs. If you’re not in tune with baseball, a no-hitter is pretty rare, most pitchers never throwing one in their career. There are anywhere form zero to three no-hitters in an average Major League season. The Cubs, who have been around since 1886, have only had sixteen no-hitters in their entire history. I’ve seen only four for the Cubs in my lifetime, and sadly, was at the game for one against them. I’ve also witnessed a lot of close calls, no-hitters broken up with a late base hit—I must have opened my big mouth.

Today I’m reading from another brand-new book, Lara Ehrlich‘s collection Animal Wife, due out tomorrow from Red Hen. Ehrlich has published a lot of these stories in lit mags, and I’ve read a few, including her work in Smokelong Quarterly. Glad to have a whole book in my hands, so congrats to her on her debut.

The title story is first up and it’s a great representation of what Ehrlich does, what themes she covers. It’s about a young girl, whose name we never get, whose mother has just left her and her father. They live in a house in the woods built upon a pond, the pond where her father met her mother, swimming naked. At least that’s his story: Mom’s version is different, as we’ll come to realize later on.

The dad doesn’t really know how to raise a kid, or take care of the house (we see this later on, in other stories), so our hero has to fend for herself. She feeds herself and basically does what she wants. It’s a good thing she has an expanse of woods to explore. This is actually something her mother encouraged—in fact, her mother seems to have an affinity with the woods, and is symbolized by a white feather she used to wear, a white feather our hero carries with her. It’s at this point you might start remembering the title of this story and put two and two together.

In the woods, our hero runs into Amir, a boy who seems to live in the woods, up in a tree. They become fast friends and teach each other things. Amir shows her how to gather and pelt stones as weapons, while she teaches him boxing, which she’s been practicing on her own.

What you should note about Amir and his perch, way up in this tree, is that he can see the entire woods. He’s seen her at her house, and her father, too. Especially important is how he saw her mother leave, information she desperately wants. She might not be ready for the answers she gets, however.

I won’t go much further into the plot of this story, but will not that there’s a run-in with a monster they call the Marsh King, an entity she and Amir have been dodging for the entire story. How all of this pieces together, you can find out for yourself, and I suggest you do, as this is a really good story.

There’s a mix of shorts and somewhat longer and shorter stories. Three one-pagers, “Crush,” “Kite,” and “Paint by Number” are all solid flash pieces, Ehrlich understanding the economy of language, yet still able to instill her themes.

“Night Terrors” again sends a girl out into the woods. She begins having nightmares, and when she’s awake, she hears things in the forest, lurking outside her window, things she assumes are coming to kill her.

“Foresight” is about a woman who sees the natural ending to every situation she enters into, be it meeting a writer at a reading and determining how and when he’ll cheat on her, years down the road; or how her children will look and turn out, if she has them. This ability freezes her, as eventually, all roads lead to at least a little heartache.

“The Tenant” features a widow who invites a bear into her home, a bear who’s a better houseguest, and companion, than most of the people the woman has ever met.

The last story I read is “The Monster at Marta’s Back,” about a woman with aspirations to be a writer and an artist, but was sidetracked by a career as a homemaker. Her daughters grown, she applies for an receives a scholarship to a writer’s retreat/colony, and no one can believe she’s actually going, leaving her home and hapless husband to their vices. On the train to the retreat, she shares a car with just one person, a stalking man who creeps all over her, making her, sadly, regret her decision to leave.

Women are leaving all over Animal Wife, Lara Ehrlich’s debut collection, but that’s just one of the themes Ehrlich explores. The sense of escape and abandonment are joined by the spiritual and the natural, as well as a sense of independence, exploration, and dream-chasing. I’ve liked this collection as much as any new collection I’ve read in 2020, and predict this will be on my top-of-the-year list when it’s all said and done. Congrats to you, Lara, on. your book!

September 13, 2020: “Down in the Dumps” by Donald Harington

Sunday for you, Story366!

The full NFL slate kicks off today after a game or two earlier in the week. That means the Chicago Bears are playing, and as I write this, they’re down 20-6 early in the second half. Maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. That’ll certainly be determined way before I post, but that’s not the point of me mentioning all this.

The Bears were 12-4 two years ago, their first playoff appearance in a while, but then fell to 7-9 last year. There’s all kind of quarterback issues, and overall, the team doesn’t have a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball. They will probably dawdle their way to a non-playoff, sub-.500 record, but at the same time, not be terrible enough to earn a franchise-changing draft pick. That’s been the Bears for most of the years since they won the Super Bowl in 1986 (with a few exceptions): Not good enough to actually win anything, but not bad enough to change their fortunes in the draft. Thirty-five seasons of middle-of-the-road is frustrating as a fan. At least we have “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

Why I’m writing about all this is I’ve had to decide, today, whether or not I’m going to pay attention. I’m as busy as ever, Sunday afternoons aren’t good, and the Bears don’t look like they’re going to be great. I know that’s shitty fandom, but right now, I only have so much time to devote to sports-watching, and even less emotion to expend. All of that energy and heart is going to the Cubs right now, who are headed to the playoffs again. Do I have time for both? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. No.

I made this move three or four years ago, the year of the big Cub World Series run. I just decided, with a grim outlook for the Bears, not to get involved for the season. I checked scores, and if I was in front of a TV and the game was on, I would certainly watch, root for my team. But since the Bears aren’t the local team around Springfield, I’d have to go to a bar or other such place to catch the game; that’s more effort, most expense, more juggling of our family’s weekend to accommodate this three to four hours.

Right now, I’m listening to the Bears on the radio as I type this. I like listening to them, like bitching about them, and like cheering for them—they just scored a touchdown! But do I have time to follow them passionately, be a true fanatic? We’ll see.

Today’s book is … oh, crap! The Bears, since I typed that last paragraph, have staged an epic comeback, scoring two more touchdowns after the one I mentioned, beating the Lions 27-23. So, scrap everything I just said?! We’ll see. Go Bears!

Anyway, today’s book is Double Toil and Trouble by Donald Harington, just out from the University of Arkansas Press. Harington passed away in 2009, but was one of the Ozarks most influential and well known writers, most of his published work set in the fictional Arkanas town of Stay More, based on Drakes Creek, the town where he spent his summers as a kid. I’ve come to know of Harington’s work since I’ve moved to the Ozarks, but was not expecting a new release at this point. To note, Double Toil and Trouble is a collection and a new novel (albeit a short one), and I don’t have time to read the novel today, but want to later. Overall, I’m glad to have a chance to read something and cover it here.

The first story (after the novel), “A Second Career,” features Reverend Emory Winstead. Emory’s just 30, but faces a moral and philosophical dilemma: A wealthy member of his congregation comes to him for advice, but with tragic news: His 15-year-old daughter has contracted fatal leukemia and has, at most, a year to live. Having the means, he’s offered to give his daughter anything she wants, be it a sports car, a trip to Europe, or whatever. The girl wants to have a baby, which, of course, is messed up. So Emory spends the rest of the story trying to figure out to tell this man, what the church’s stance might be, and seeks help from some unique sources. He’s also trying a second career as a fiction writer, and struggles to keep himself from making fiction out of his congregation’s woes.

“Telling Time” follows an unnamed graduate student in folklore as he writes a paper about growing up in Stay More, particularly a storytelling rivalry between a man named Lion Judah Stapleton and Henry “Hairy” Tongue. We start with Lion Judah (a Biblical reference meant to mimic “Lyin’ Judah”), who tells his stories in front of a grocery store, sitting on the porch outside, whittling, and chewing tobacco as he regales customers. The proprietor of the story actually pays Lion Judah to sit out there, as people come to hear his tales, and as a result, end up shopping more. Things are thrown askew when a second store opens up down the street and hires Hairy Tongue to spin yarns of his own. Eventually, a story-off happens, and, well, you’ll have to read the story to see what happens.

My favorite of the three I read is “Down in the Dumps,” about Russell Thornhill, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has hit rock bottom. He starts drinking hard, bottles of bourbon at a time, and eventually screws up a case, prompting his suspension. More importantly, his wife kicks him out, sending Russell to a seedy apartment above a noisy plumber’s shop.

Russell, because he’s drunk and desperate, decides to spy on his wife, believing she’s having an affair. Instead of info, he gets really sick, lying out in the wet swamp across from his house, and he’s down for weeks. When he emerges, his crappy apartment is trashed, full of garbage. He takes the garbage down to the dump to get rid of it, there’s so much.

There’s he encounters the garbage man, the guy who lives in a shack at the dump and manages things. Russell gets to talking to him, and before long, tries to recruit the man to his scheme: He’s willing to pay the man to be lookout while he ransacks his house and wife’s car, searching for evidence of indiscretion. The junk man responds with a litany of info on Russell and his wife—he knows everything about everyone because he looks through their trash. He tells Russell what he wants—his wife has been faithful—and Russell gives him a bottle of whiskey in exchange.

Russell eventually weasels his way back into his wife’s graces and moves back home. He even stops drinking. Things goes south once again, however, when he’s terminated from his job, permanently, sending him back to the dump. He wants to recruit the dump man again, this time to dig up dirt on his boss. The garbage man refuses, instead going into a deep conversation about the nature of want, how money isn’t important, and that true happiness can be found in so many other ways—he uses himself and his position as an example. Russell doesn’t want to buy into this philosophy, but the more he listens—the men start hanging out at the dump and drinking whiskey—the more he caves toward the man’s way of thinking.

I won’t go any further into this story, but there’s a couple more plot twists that make it resolve quite well, make it my favorite. On top of the eccentric characters and unpredictability, there’s a real poetry to the prose, the garbage man speaking like a bard, his level of speech well beyond his station (which is kinda his point). It’s a really great short story.

I’m glad to have finally read Donald Harington’s work, though sadly it took me so long to discover it. Double Toil and Trouble isn’t quite a story collection—there’s that titular novel starting things out—but stories are collected here. Two of them, “A Second Career” and “Down in the Dumps,” were published in Esquire in 1967, to give you perspective on when they were written and under what sensibility, but they hold up, fresh as if they were written now. That’s the true tell if someone’s made their mark, and Harington has certainly made his.

September 12, 2020: “Dreadful Young Ladies” by Kelly Barnhill

Here go, Story366!

As reported earlier, me and the older boy are training for a seafaring adventure for Scouts next year. This includes a lot of time in the water, each of us learning to be better swimmers. We’ve gone to the gym five times in the last eight days, swimming laps, adding one each day. Our hope, by next July, is that we can each complete the mile-swim test, which is thirty-two laps, or sixty-four lengths of an olympic-sized pool. We’re up to ten laps, more or less.

I say more or less because after the first day—we started with five—I started having trouble. After each lap, I’ve needed a break to catch my breath. The Karen pointed out that I changed color, turning red or even purple, while doing these laps. So, big red flag there.

What I figured out is, I wasn’t breathing. Somehow, since we last swam back in March, I changed the way I swim and was suddenly just taking short, desperate breaths on every stroke. The color change, particularly purple, suggested a lack of oxygen. I started to change my form, keeping my head above water longer, making sure to inhale deeper, to hold, release, then repeat. Immediately, it got easier. I no longer changed color. Today, I started out breathing with the first lap, and only had a minor setback on lap three when I swallowed a whole bunch of water. After I got through that, it was pretty easy. I thought about doing extra laps, but then thought better of it. So, disaster averted. Training ensues. Michael Phelps, look out.

Today I read from Kelly Barnhill‘s collection, Dreadful Young Ladies, out from Algonquin Books in 2018. Barnhill is the author of several novels, for both kids and not-kids, and is known for her blend of fantasy, sci-fi, and literary fiction. This is her first and only story collection so far, and my first exposure to her work. Here’s my take.

The first story in the book, “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch,” is a delight. It’s about Mrs. Sorensen, a recent widow, who is all St. Francis/Snow White with the local woodland creatures. When she arrives at the church to decorate for her husband’s funeral, she’s accompanied by a cat, a dog, a raccoon, and a deer, who lend a hand with the flowers. Her town, including the local priest, are all infatuated with the lovely and uncanny Mrs. Sorensen, who is a breath of fresh air that the town has mixed feelings about. These feelings grow even more complicated when rumors of Sasquatch citings increase, many of them in and around the Sorensen property. Given her connection to wild creatures, big and small, it’s not a huge shock to anyone when the two titular characters start to appear publicly, hand in hand.

“The Dead Boy’s Last Poem” is about a young girl, obsessed with a young poet, who sadly dies young. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, for her, he leaves her his entire written catalogue, so much hand-scribed poetry it has to be delivered in a truck. Not only does she obsess over these poems, but she begins to fashion various necessities from the pages, including a facsimile of the poet himself. Young love proves fickle, however, and the girl moves on the only way that someone with so much paper can: a bonfire effigy.

The title story, “Dreadful Young Ladies,” is told in five vignettes, each one about a different young lady, who, by Barnhill’s description, are all dreadful, and for different reasons.

Fran is first up and she is watching her lover’s wife’s kid at a playground (for some reason we’re not told). Fran reminisces about the time she was talking to a boy and her sister swung on the swings so hard, she flew away, never to be seen again. Fran wishes she could make this kid do the same thing—she doesn’t like her lover’s wife’s kid—but when the kid refuses to cooperate, she devises an alternative.

Margaret has magic lips. Or maybe magic lipstick. Depending on the color she wears, different things happen to the people she kisses, even the people she’s around.

Estelle is an organized woman who doesn’t pay her taxes, but has a very good system of receipts, file folders with labels and color-coding and all. When a tax man comes calling to tell her to pay up, Estelle has a surprise for him that makes him stop bothering her.

Okay, I think you get the idea, as I don’t want to reveal all of them. But it’s a fun and devious concept, eclectic ideas formed into little stories that explore all facets of the word dreadful, adding up to quite a composite.

All writers are creative and imaginative, especially fiction writers, but Kelly Barnhill takes both monikers and run with them. There’s a magical feel to her stories in Dreadful Young Ladies, even when there’s no magic afoot, her descriptions bustling with color and life, her characters enigmatic and joyful. I really enjoyed my time with this book today and hope to read more of her work, to investigate this extraordinary collection further.

September 11, 2020: “The Mustache in 2010” by Joseph O’Neill

A good Friday to you, Story366!

Tonight we would normally be traveling to some localish high school to watch our oldest perform with his marching band. Since his team is on the road today, they are not playing, not traveling, because of the COVID restrictions. It’s too bad, as we went to the home game last week and really got a taste for it. I went to see my nephew play, who’s 37 now, meaning it’s been twenty years since I’d last been to a high school football game. But we had a good time last week, enjoyed seeing our son play, march in and out, even warm up. And heck, we started to root for his high school team to win—they did not (in fact, they’re historically bad, losing 54 of 55 recently). Maybe next time. Maybe next year? In any case, go Marching Band!

Today I read from Irish writer Joseph O’Neill‘s 2017 collection, Good Trouble, out from Pantheon. O’Neill’s garnered quite a career for himself, mostly with his novels, and includes a PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction. Have I read any of his work before? I don’t think I have, so again, Story366 bails me out of an embarrassing blind spot in my contemporary repertoire.

The first story in the book is “Pardon Edward Snowden” and is about this poet, Mark McClain, who receives an email, asking him to sign a petition for the release of Edward Snowden. The request comes from a younger, hipper, edgier poet that Mark doesn’t care for; this younger poet has written the petition in the form of a poem, a poem with some terrible rhymes. Mark confides in his poet friend, Liz, who likes this younger poet. A lot of this story is in Mark’s head—literally—as he confronts his own feelings of inadequacy, exploring what he thinks about contemporary letters. What’s slyly left out is what Mark thinks about Edward Snowden, whether or not he deserved to be released, as Mark is too stuck down his own wormhole of self-exploration and second-guessing to even answer the base question.

“The Death of Billy Joel” features Tom, who plans a golf vacation in Tampa with his closest friends for his fortieth birthday. He invites thirteen guys and only three bother to reply—and one of those pulls out at the last second. The guys fly down, golf a lot, and go out to dinner the two nights they’re there. Tom hopes for something more, an unforgettable adventure—maybe including some strip clubs—which his two friends shy away from. Tom has an epiphany of sorts on this trip, maybe multiple epiphanies, as he starts to reflect on the nature of friendship, how those guys he knew in college didn’t even respond to his email, guys he thought were his lifelong bros. He also questions what he does, how he has fun, as the trip is just a bunch of golf and beers and chicken wings in a place warmer than where he lives, not really worth all the effort, or disappointment. Oh, and the title: He misinterprets the news feed on TV on Friday night and thinks Billy Joel is dead the whole time; he’s not.

“The Mustache in 2010” is my favorite of the lot, as it’s kind of indescribable, one of those stories that’s unlike any story I’ve ever read, and overall, an impressive piece of fiction. This one starts off with a deconstruction of facial hair around the year 2010, the patterns and fashions and configurations that were in at the time. There’s a real omniscience to the narration, as if this is some grand proclamation, or perhaps someone’s masters thesis, as a lot of thought is put into explaining these whimsical choices that define an era (this, coming from me, who’s had the same facial hair for twenty or so years).

Next we’re introduced to Alex and Viv, a young couple living in New York with their two kids. Alex has a thing where he only shaves every third Monday, meaning he practically grows a full beard every three weeks. Instead of completely shaving, he’s taken to leaving some designated pattern on his face, mutton chops, goatee, cop mustache, and the like. Viv thinks it’s funny as a running joke, a prank, and, well, that ties them to the story title and that first part of the story.

Alex and Viv attend a charity auction at their kid’s school, where they meet up with another couple, friends of theirs, and the woman’s parents, visiting from Chicago. For some reason, Viv takes a disliking to her friend’s dad, and when he tries to buy the last lot of the night—a lawyer offering free will service—Viv not only goes out of her way to outbid Dad, but humiliate him as well.

That’s the story up to this point, very unpredictable without much of a sense of the plot or characters, especially written with this elevated omniscience. Things get really nutty at this point, though, as O’Neill decides to introduce an I, as in a first-person narrator. The day after the auction incident, Viv has lunch with this narrator, who’s been telling the story the whole time, apparently. The last couple of pages shift to this narrator, one of Viv’s dear friends. We then jump forward and realize she’s reminiscing about this lunch, what Viv revealed about her behavior at this auction, many years later. The woman gets all introspective about what this incident meant to her, her views on her friend, and friendship in general. Tell me you saw this as the ending of a story titled “The Mustache in 2010,” beginning as this story does.

Joseph O’Neill’s stories in Good Trouble seem to do that, reminisce about the past, then wonder what the past really is, how it plays into the grand scheme, let alone the present. I like the complexity of O’Neill’s characters, as well as his approach to story, how he gets inside these anxious, paranoid minds and kicks around for a bit. It’s a truly unique book, and I’m glad I read it.