By Charles Rammelkamp
A triptych is an artwork made up of three folding panels. It can display a narrative sequence, show different aspects of a subject, simultaneously, as it were, and it can make a moral statement. Typically, we think of a triptych in terms of painting. Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights is a famous example, displaying paradise and hell in smaller panels alongside the larger middle panel that displays humanity in all its sinful glory, indulgences of the flesh. The genius of Robert Scotellaro’s work here with the flash fiction genre is in using this three-part imagery to do all of the above, and he does it with a humor and compassion that has a reader wiping his (her) eyes. These deeply satisfying stories are riddles and three-act plays all at once.
“From a Hitman’s Sketchy Last Will and Testament Written on a Placemat at The House of Pancakes” is composed of three parts, “P.S.,” “P.P.S.,” and “P.P.P.S.” (Several other stories have the same three part titles, including “SensationalSaints.com,” “The Small End of the Funnel,” “Black Bananas” and “The Penalty of Silence.”) Without even reading the text of the flashes, the reader already has a vivid image of a gangster feverishly scribbling his thoughts in a booth at a diner, maybe on the run from the police or from some mafia bosses he may have double-crossed.
The first part begins, “You’ll find the key to a safe deposit box in the hollowed out copy of the one Agatha Christie novel in my bookcase.” He’s leaving his fortune to his son. In the course of his three fugitive thoughts we see his whole life. He cautions the boy to get rid of any guns he finds, but leaves him his collection of ceramic elephants. (“Notice how all the trunks are facing up. That means good luck.”)
“Okay so everything I did I did and that’s that,” he wraps up in “P.P.P.S.” No doubts, regrets or qualifications, certainly no apologies. “Enjoy the elephants.”
The forty-nine triptychs in Ways to Read the World feature a lightning-strike survivors support group, a prison guard “cowboy rap” band, a rodeo clown, a husband and wife in a horse costume (“Horse’s Ass”), a frustrated preacher’s wife, soldiers in Vietnam, and a plethora of husbands and wives, parents and offspring. Gangsters and hoodlums recur, in East Harlem and elsewhere. The effect is like opening a box of chocolates with four dozen wrapped pieces, each one a surprise.
The stories unfold (think of Bosch’s folding panels!) like a stage drama. Freytag’s Pyramid, devised by 19th century German playwright Gustav Freytag, a paradigm of dramatic structure that outlines seven steps in successful storytelling – exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement – is another way to appreciate what Scotellero has accomplished here in brief strokes.
Take the story “Close as We Get.” A husband and wife enter the stage for the first act, “Moon Dance.” They have a hobby of purchasing abandoned storage lockers, steamer trunks, treasure chests. The wife’s name is Rita; the story is told by the unnamed husband. Act two, “Negative Entropy,” introduces the inciting incident, the rising action: the discovery of an old boat’s log. It is the chronicle of a Ponce de Leon-like search for the fountain of youth! The chronicle is smeared with age. “I think about time, how it travels fast, sandpapers us down.” The third act, “Close As We Get Sometimes,” describes the climax, falling action, resolution and denouement: “I stop reading, can sense how this ends. Like all wild goose chases end. But I want to believe in the quest. It’s all about the quest, isn’t it?” Resigned, he glances over at Rita, her hair down, so “you might think she was years younger.”
“Little Race Cars” is another example. The narrator’s cousin Peter, with whom he fought as a kid for the little gray race car token when they played Monopoly, has won the lottery! Lucky him! Only, now his wife Cynthia is leaving him because of the bimbos and hangers-on who’ve started flocking to their house looking for backing and handouts. All this happens in the first frame, “Fins.” “Hot Chocolate” develops the complications, the inventors who want his financial backing. “Hot Chocolate Again,” the third and final panel, brings us full circle to the inevitable. Peter could never tell a joke, try as he might, the narrator confides, but he gives his cousin a second chance. When he asks Peter if he has any new jokes, Peter replies, “Yeah, my life,” as he clicks on an enormous TV screen that’s like the emblem of his “success.” The moral, of course, is implicit. Character equals fate, or something along those lines.
The story “History Lesson” sums it all up. A young woman (“Audience” – the first panel) is visiting her ailing grandmother, pill bottles arranged on her nightstand “like a medicine man’s rattles laid down.” In a burst of candor, the grandmother tells the girl about her risqué life long ago (“I wore the reddest lipstick”) in the next panel, “Beehive.” Finally, in the third panel, “Snow Cave,” the grandmother winds up – her throat is dry “from spillin’ the beans,” advising her granddaughter to maintain her innocence. “You keep it that way for as long as you can. There’s no hurry, hon. Life will catch up on its own, no matter what. You’ll see.”
Robert Scotellero truly shows us new ways to read the world, backwards, forwards, upside, down, inside out and all at once.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Ways-Read-World-Stories-Triptych/dp/B09TYSFMSS
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.