Most Read Reviews January to June 2022
Based on readership
All the Songs We Sing – Edited by Lenard D. Moore
Contra natura by Rodolfo Hinostroza Translated by Anthony Seidman
A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers edited by Kyle Schlesinger
Smoking the Bible by Chris Abani
A Feeling Called Heaven by Joey Yearous-Algozin
The Upright Dog by Carl Fuerst
Anvilhead by Rustin Larson
Empty Graves: Tales of the Living Dead by Jonathan Maberry
getting away with everything by Vincent Cellucci and Christopher Shipman
A Way of Looking by Jianqing Zheng
Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me by John Weir
By Charles Rammelkamp
In the story “Katherine Mansfield” John Weir writes,
I don’t really understand friendship. If you’re in extreme need, I’m your best friend. Otherwise, I’m not there. There’s no second act in my life, but there’s a first and a third. I don’t do middles. I’ll stick around to fall in love and watch you die, but nothing in between.
Having lived through the slow, horrific death from AIDS of his close friend David, the author is experiencing a kind of PTSD. He feels survivor guilt. In “Humoresque” he writes: “My friends died and I didn’t. Or: I should have died and didn’t. Or: in 1984, I figured I’d be dead I five years; who didn’t?” Similarly, in the title story, “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me,” he writes: “I’ve watched friends die, and I have never been any help except to hold you and say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
The first part of this collection, called “AIDS Nostalgia,” includes seven of the eleven interconnected stories, almost all of them alluding to Dave. Indeed, the very first story, “Neorealism at the Infinplex,” begins: “My friend Dave died of AIDS in the fall of 1994.” In “It Must Be Swell to Be Laying Out Dead,” he tells us, “He’s the first person I speak to each day, the last one at night. Phone calls early and late. Every day for the past five years has started and ended with Dave.” In “Scenes from a Marriage,” he helps Dave in the bathroom at a Broadway theater as he sits on the toilet, “his pants and diapers on the floor.” His care of his friend is intimate and visceral, up close and personal. He feels helpless but responsible, anguished. “How can I help him? I’m not a doctor. He’s my best friend, but he doesn’t want me to touch him.,” he notes plaintively. Later in “Scenes from a Marriage” he writes, “By 1994 in New York City, AIDS had become routine, even as it stayed occult, a minority affliction.”
Yet Weir is also very funny, witty, especially in the voice of the manic, wisecracking David. He writes, “Now he’s dying, and I’m jealous. I’m competitive with Dave’s death. It’s all he cares about: dying, not dying.” And Dave, frustrated and desperate, lashes out at his friend/caregiver: “I’ve got news for you. You’re not the Messiah. You’re a fag. I’m a dying fag. I win the Suffering Sweepstakes. You think this is happening to you. Well, it’s not.”
“Katherine Mansfield” is a story about his romantic relationships soon after David’s death. Besides Marc, a successful singer/songwriter who regards Weir as his muse, there’s Phil, a younger guy he meets in an acting class. These relationships are doomed from the start, of course; Weir is too traumatized by death. He notes wryly about Phil, “A relationship that consisted of acting exercises, and an age difference big enough to span Madonna’s career, isn’t equipped to survive….” Elsewhere, he describes random furtive encounters in peepshow booths.
Movies, musicals, and stage plays are alluded to throughout these stories. Three of the stories – “American Graffiti,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” and “Humoresque” – are movie titles, as is “Imitation of Life,” the title of the third section, which contains only one story, the ominously titled “It Gets Worse.” “Katherine Mansfield,” by the way, is the name of the narrator’s friend Marc’s band; it does not allude to the British modernist writer, though Weir’s literary allusions abound, from Barthes and Foucault and Vladimir Mayakovsky to Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Thoreau, Stephen Crane, Robert Frost, Eudora Welty, Jack Kerouac, and so on.
Weir humorously channels the gay trope of worshipping camp actresses. In “American Graffiti” he writes, “I was an actress. I yearned to be. I still do. I wanted especially to be an actress in 1970s Hollywood movies. Those women!” He goes on to name-drop “Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Ellen Burstyn, Barbara Harris, Cicely Tyson, Carrie Snodgrass, Cloris Leachman, Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Diahann Carroll, Karen Black.” He compares himself to Tippi Hedren in The Birds.
The three stories that make up part two, “Long-term Survivors,” also focus on death and dying, including his mother, now in her 80’s, and an on again/off again lover/survivor named Scott. His mother lives in a retirement community and has just suffered a brain hemorrhage. “My mother is a movie star without a movie to star in,” he writes in “Humoresque.”
Just as in real life – indeed, it often feels hard to distinguish between fiction and memoir and essay in Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me – the narrator is involved in gay political causes, protesting with ACT UP for AIDS research and care, and with Queer Nation, notably a protest outside the Russian Consulate in New York against Vladimir Putin’s Medieval laws against homosexuals. “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re only drinking beer,” they chant, as they pour out Russian vodka onto the pavement.
By far the most affecting stories are the ones that describe being bullied and called names in his rural New Jersey schools. Not yet even sure of his sexuality, he is nevertheless singled out and tormented by other schoolboys who taunt, “Faggot!” “Fairy!” “Fruitcake!” “Homo!” “American Graffiti” takes place during his graduation from high school in 1976. As he crosses the stage to receive his diploma, the taunts are audible to all. The story is about his friendship with a girl, Lottie, whose parents seem to assume they are a romantic item. It’s a confusing time for both. The final story in the collection, “It Gets Worse,” takes us back to an even earlier time, in middle school, when the taunting began. “I was president of the fourth grade,” he writes, “my peak. Downhill since.”
Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me is entertaining and heartbreaking by turns, always a gripping read.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Nostalgia-Killing-Grace-Paley-Fiction/dp/1636280293
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.
Good Reads for Winter Days
Porno Valley by Philip Elliott
By Charles Rammelkamp
Following his debut noir, Nobody Move, winner of the Best First Novel in the Arthur Ellis Awards, Philip Elliott’s new novel is likewise set in Los Angeles, the home of so many legendary private detective dramas. This one, too, features colorful losers and endearing anti-heroes and is full of plot surprises and just generally compelling storytelling that makes you want to read on.
Porno Valley takes place at the turn of the century. Elliott juggles three different narratives, one in 1998 involving the ambitious Jemeka Johnson and her not-the-sharpest-knife-in-the-drawer but well-meaning partner, Raymond (Ray-Ray) Jones. Another is set a year later in 1999 and involves a pair of small-time-crook junkies, Richie, a sociopath from hell, and his troubled wife Alabama. The final thread takes place in the summer of 2000 and involves a private detective named Mickey O’Rourke. Mickey is 78 and about to embark on the final case of his half-century long career. Mickey is the loneliest guy in the world and touches the reader’s heart with his quiet integrity and modest reflection. He’s been hired to find a missing person, a porn star named Jeffrey Strokes (“his real name”). Jeff is an interesting character in his own right, the most laid back person in the world, winner of three AVN awards, the Oscars of the porn industry. Somebody describes him as being like Jeff Bridges’ character, The Dude, in The Big Lebowski.
In fact, the novel opens with Mickey meeting his client, Bethany Summers at MidnightPussy Productions in San Fernando Valley, where the nascent porn industry, fueled by the rise of the internet, has become a huge growth business. Jeff has been missing for a year, and hence the three threads will come together, eventually. Bethany is Jeff’s girlfriend – or former girlfriend – both part of the porn world. She’s currently involved with Riccardo, another performer in porn films. It turns out that Riccardo plays a pivotal role in Jeff’s disappearance.
We meet Richie and Alabama in Nevada where they are holding up a diner. They’ve been a Bonnie and Clyde pair for a while but recently had a quickie Nevada wedding performed by an Elvis impersonator. Most importantly, they are supporting heroin habits and want to move up to more lucrative enterprises to support their lifestyle. Elliott is excruciatingly detailed when describing junk sickness and need. It’s almost visceral, reading about Richie’s and Alabama’s craving and Alabama’s OD.
Originally from LA, Richie brings his wife, a rural Alabama girl who left home to escape an abusive father, to the big city to seek their fortune and feed their jones. Los Angeles itself becomes something of a character, its sleaze and glamor, its poverty and luxury. “Nobody knows Los Angeles until they’ve been entranced by it, corrupted by it, cast out from it, and returned to it on their knees begging it to save them, and Richie knew Los Angeles.”
Meanwhile, a year earlier, Jemeka, scratching out a living and paying off her late father’s debts as a stylist in a hair salon, stumbles into the world of dope-dealing and, shrewd businesswoman that she is, realizes this is her ticket out of poverty. Jemeka is very ambitious – “greedy” may be a more accurate, if less flattering, adjective.
Elliott writes compellingly about poverty and the desperation it creates, especially for characters like Richie and Jemeka, but generally in poor neighborhoods like Compton, “well-intentioned families who called Compton home got ground up in the giant machine of this nation, slipping further toward poverty and the tragic moment when pressing need overtakes good intentions.”
At first Jemeka worries about the negative impact her dealing may have on her community, but over time she rationalizes selling crack as responsible because she isn’t adulterating the drug with dangerous additives just to maximize her profits. “Looked at that way, selling crack wasn’t so bad. It could even be said she was doing something good for the community.”
On balance, Jemeka is a sympathetic character, even as her ruthlessness (which she rationalizes as pragmatism) sometimes blinds her. Richie, though, is a totally repulsive dude with a mean streak a mile wide. It’s only Mickey whom we admire. Mickey’s wife of decades, Martha, has recently died from cancer. We feel his loneliness. He’s always been a romantic. He remembers winning Martha’s love by reciting Yeats to her, the poem, “When You Are Old.”
While resolving the various plots, the novel ends somewhat ambiguously, as if the story is “to be continued.” We do learn what becomes of Jeff Strokes, but other things still seem a bit up in the air. Elliott is fully aware of this. “It’s an intentionally subversive ending,” he says, “meant to be a little irksome as I wanted to play around with the fact that most crime novels end super conveniently wrapped in a bow with all loose ends tied. The novel was my attempt at playing around with the concept of a whodunit (as a friend said, ‘it’s not a whodunit but a how- or whydunit inside a noir.’) In a way I wanted to write an anti-Nobody Move. So, yeah, just playing with expectations.”
Elliott convincingly recreates the era with reference to the current music at the end of the century. Richie is in love with the new Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Californication” He also goes for the relative oldie, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (Blue Oyster Cult). Jemeka plays 2Pac’s music in her salon, “Only God Can Judge Me,” which is appropriate. Mickey, meanwhile, has Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever on a cassette tape. Remember cassette tapes? “I Won’t Back Down” is his anthem. Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” is featured in a scene at Tower Records where Richie goes Medieval.
In any case, Porno Valley is a terrific, satisfying read. The reader’s reaction is not unlike Bethany’s when Mickey at last tells her about Jeff. “Bethany’s mouth fell open. She looked like God had descended from Heaven and urinated on her.” Philip Elliott keeps you guessing to the end!
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Porno-Valley-Angel-Philip-Elliott/dp/1999086848
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.
The Essentials: A Manifesto by David Tromblay
By Alex Carrigan
Manifestos are dangerous in nature. They’re principled declarations that can tell you everything you need to know about the author, but they also threaten to force that person to commit to their point of view. When one writes a manifesto, they are hoping to immortalize their beliefs at the time and leave a statement for future generations to absorb and consider when facing various situations. Manifestos are tricky in nature, and they require a lot of thought behind them.
In a new book from Whisk(e)y Tit, David Tromblay’s The Essentials: A Manifesto presents a manifesto that has emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and imagines what could come from a world following it. In a near-future setting, the world population has surpassed 10 billion, and attempts to control the population growth have led to worldwide attempts to revalue life. Borders are closed, property is seized, people are relocated, and medicine is commodified even more than before. The novel follows Jonathan Shaddox, a courier for a medical company as he and a nameless runner drive around Duluth delivering supplies, with Shaddox educating the youngster about the world before everything changed.
The novel alternates between conversations between Shaddox and the runner and news reports of major events since the world changed. The conversations are about various facets of the world around them and Shaddox’s own personal history, from his early years on a reservation to his time in a war to his current family situation. The conversations discuss matters like income inequality, the environment, democracy, and more as they’ve all radically changed over the last several years. News reports show how these changes occurred, from the seizing of national parks to use as resources and land development to the dissolution of the National Bureau of Veterans Affairs following “the Desert Wars.”
Tromblay’s writing is fascinating in that the reader is kept detached from the story so they can take all this in objectively. Aside from the news clips having the same detached tone as any modern piece of journalism, the parts with Shaddox withhold setting descriptions and use action minimally. The dialogue doesn’t even use quotation marks, making it somewhat hard to keep track of who’s talking at certain moments. Even the way they talk can blur at times, as both can alternate from critical and cynical to hopeful and curious at other times.
While this does mean the reader can focus on the manifesto aspect of the tale, it does mean that it can be a bit harder to feel the world around it. We’re told the world has fallen apart and that things are way worse off in the future because Shaddox and the news reports say so. We’re told the world is so bad that people will throw themselves in front of Shaddox’s truck and that he’s so numbed to it that he’ll keep driving when they do. But The Essentials keeps the reader at almost too much of a distance at times to where it’s difficult to really absorb the state of the world and fear that our world could become like it. We’re presented with ideas and commentary as per the manifesto, but the tale itself could have benefitted from allowing the reader to experience it rather than be cramped in Shaddox’s passenger seat. Part of this may be due to some reveals towards the end of the book, but those aren’t as effective due to the detachment that lessens the impact of those reveals.
The Essentials has some good ideas, and the writing is compelling and current enough that readers will probably walk away considering if we’re already in the handbasket that’s being lowered slowly into Hell via fishing line. However, the story loses a lot of its impact because it ties itself so hard to the manifesto aspect that it may not be as effective as a statement as it could be. Of course, the story does set out to make a statement, and it is commendable that it did analyze issues that may not have been at anyone’s forefront, so while it may not be the most effective statement, it is one that would be harder to scrub off the walls.
You can find the book here: https://whiskeytit.com/product/the-essentials/
Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an editor, writer, and critic from Virginia. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Empty Mirror, Gertrude Press, Quarterly West, Whale Road Review, “Stories About Penises” (Guts Publishing, 2019), “Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wea” (Et Alia Press, 2020), and “ImageOutWrite Vol. 9”
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
-A Study in Style-
By Ray Greenblatt
We are familiar with the movie version of The Maltese Falcon (1941): the durable Humphrey Bogart, the seductive Jane Greer, and the evil-doers Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, along with their punk hit man and various flatfeet. We know that a script can delete a character or add a new one; that indoor scenes can be enlarged to the outdoors; that dialogue can alter greatly, etc.
However, unless you read the book, you don’t realize that Hammett specializes in a poetic Style: his rare descriptions of Things are powerful; yet his unique expertise is description of People, especially their faces and eyes. As a matter of fact, The Maltese Falcon (1929) could make a consummate drama for the legitimate stage.
Like a poet Hammett employs strings of nouns: “The eyes—lids, balls, irises, and pupils—remained frozen, immobile.” (197); adverbs: “He cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously, in a harsh guttural voice.” (101) ; participles: “Probing, scrutinizing, testing with expert certainty.” (111) He uses fresh adjectives: “A lathy youth with salient ears ushered Spade into the District Attorney’s office.” (179) He even dares lewd words, whatever he could get away with in 1929: “The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second ‘you.’”(116)
The humor of Hammett’s characters is dry:
“Cairo hesitated, said dubiously: ‘You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.’
Spade scowled. ‘What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?’” (119)
Not only dry but sardonic: “’Now I’ve got to remember to be polite to you. What did I do? Forget to genuflect when I came in?’” (143)
Hammett’s use of symbolism is subtle: “She spoke slowly, looking down at a pointed finger tracing eight on the settee between them.” (45) His psychological probing sharp: “Her air of personal indifference to the subject was flawless.” (121) “In the dissimilar eyes with which Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo looked at him there was, oddly, something identically reproving. The boy blushed, drew back his advanced foot, straightened his legs, lowered the pistol.” (218) “The appearance of Gutman and his companions seemed to have robbed her of that freedom of personal movement and emotion that is animal, leaving her alive, conscious, but quiescent as a plant.” (217)
Sam Spade is a man of action; Gutman seems to be the philosopher, but a hollow one. He pontificates: “’I do like a man that tells you right out he’s looking out for himself. Don’t we all? I don’t trust a man that says he’s not. And the man that’s telling the truth when he says he’s not I distrust most of all, because he’s an ass and an ass that’s going contrary to the laws of nature.’” (132) In contrast, through an anecdote Spade muses: “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” (78) “He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.” (78)
Although Hammett does not often in his descriptions leave the human body, he forcefully at times brings objects to life. Outdoors: “Beginning day had reduced night to a thin smokiness.” (111) “A high thin moon was cold and feeble as the distant street-light.” (210) Around the house: “He tiptoed to a window and then to another. They, like the door, were uncurtained except by inner darkness.” (210) “The alarm clock perched atop the book saying two-fifty with its clumsily shaped hands.” (103) “The ashes on the desk twitched and curled in the current.” (4) Even a car is given emphasis: “An automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him with a roaring swish, as if it had been blown out, and ran away.” (15)
Hammett’s literary revelation to me was his explicit description of a person’s features. First the entire man: “A man of thirty in clothing and hair of kindred unruliness.” (180) Gutman is obviously an extreme character: “The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.” (129) Here the entire body comes alive: “He made angry gestures with mouth, eyebrows, hands, and shoulders.” (48)
Then the author concentrates on an arm: “Fist, wrist, forearm, crooked elbow, and upper arm seemed all one rigid piece, with only the limber shoulder giving them motion.” (56) Now a hand: “Held out a hand like a fat pink star.” (129) “’He went like that,’ Spade said, ‘like a fist when you open your hand.’” (76)
Now we start to focus on the face, Hammett’s eminent domain of expression. “The upper part of his face frowned. The lower part smiled.” (40) “His face was a watchful-eyed smiling mask held up between his thoughts and Spade.” (134) “His face was grey now, with jaw-muscles standing out like tumors under his ears.” (161) “His face while he smoked was, except for occasional slight and aimless movements of his lower lip, so still and reflective that it seemed stupid.” (58) “The indelible youngness of his face gave an indescribably vicious—and inhuman—turn to the white-hot hatred and the cold white malevolence in his face.” (228)
The mouth becomes a special area of expression: “Spade put the cigarette in his mouth, set fire to it, and laughed smoke out.” (27) Then lips and teeth come into play: “She tortured her lower lip with glistening teeth and said nothing.” (5) But the voice with its significant words is most important: “His voice was resonant with latent power.” (180) “His voice was too hoarse and gritty for the paternally admonishing tone it tried to achieve.” (228) “It was a harsh voice and rasping with agony and with the strain of keeping two words from being smothered by the liquid bubbling that ran under and behind them.” (195) “His voice sank to a more impressive key and his words came out spaced and distinct.” (183) Often the mouth is linked to the eyes: “Spade stared through the girl and spoke as if using speech to arrange his thoughts.” (165)
Eyes are such a major motif I wonder if a psychological monograph has ever been written on this aspect of Hammett’s style. Sometimes the eyes are in league with the face: “His bony face—weather-coarsened, age-lined—was the color of wet sand and was wet with sweat on cheeks and chin. His eyes were dark and bloodshot and mad above lower lids that hung down to show pink inner membrane.” (196) Other times the eyes are mated with the mouth: “She laughed a clear merry laugh, dropped the mangled cigarette into a tray, and looked at him with clear merry eyes.” (69)
But on innumerable occasions the eyes alone dominate:
“His eyes were shiny in a wooden Satan’s face.” (68)
“The fat man’s eyes were dark gleams in ambush behind pink puffs of flesh.” (133)
“His eyes were dark holes in an oily pink face.” (161)
“His sleek eyes had borrowed merriment from his laughter.” (224)
“His eyes were warm green discs.” (24)
“Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers.” (69)
“Points of yellow lights began to dance in his eyes.” (114)
“His eyes were hard and shiny as the lenses over them.” (182)
“His greenish eyes were fixed on Spade in a peculiarly rigid stare, as if their focus were a matter of mechanics, to be changed only by pulling a lever or pressing a button.” (21)
“He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretense that they were not studying, weighing, judging her.” (66)
Even though the script was close to the book, Hammett’s descriptions of people could only be roughly interpreted by actors’ expressions.
My wife and I loved the blue harbor and golden cliffs of Malta. Here the Knights Templars established their main stronghold in the 16th century. What more mysterious place in which to discover an objet d’art that brought such mayhem unto murder into our world. Dashiell Hammett hit on a beguiling concept that sold innumerable books, produced a classic film, and made him internationally known. But the mystery remains—where is the real falcon encrusted with gold and priceless jewels?
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Maltese-Falcon-Dashiell-Hammett/dp/0679722645
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).
What Are the Chances? By Robert Scotellaro
By Charles Rammelkamp
In the story “Plink!” in Robert Scotellaro’s new collection a man stands at a window, mesmerized, watching diamond-like hailstones falling out of the sky, pelting the asphalt, the sidewalks, the sides of cars. “Then it stops. The way magic often does.” That’s an apt description of the sixty-eight marvelous little stories, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to no more than three pages, that make up What Are the Chances? First of all, they do feel magical, with so many strange characters, often costumed, popping off the page, snaring your attention – like hailstones – and then the payoff, the flash that makes “flash fiction” flash fiction, the sudden illumination of character or scene. And then the story stops.
Stories like “Mr. Nasty,” “The Cleaning” Girl,” “Bad-Boy Wannabe and the Cephalopod Empire,” and the single-paragraph, “Death’s Late-Night Walks,” among others, feature characters in dress-up; the German word maskenfreiheit – signaling the freedom conferred by masks – come to life. In “Mr. Nasty” a man flirts with a hired birthday party performer, who is dressing up as Snow White, the entertainment at a party for his daughter, while aware of the watchful eyes of his mother-in-law and wife. Nothing comes of it, of course, but the tension is like lightning. Similarly, the Bad-Boy Wannabe watches his devil’s mask blow away from his head in a breeze, exposing him, while he tries to impress a girl in a squid mask, the two sharing a joint. But, unmasked now as he is, she is out of his league. The cleaning girl dresses up in her employer’s jewels and furs while the homeowners are away, fantasizing the luxury, only to get a bad scare when the doorbell rings, sure she’s busted. However briefly, we feel all of these characters’ illicit feelings, the lust, the covetousness, the fear.
Although some of the stories are truly grim, ominous, like the title story in which the protagonists come home to find their home robbed and a lethal butcher knife displayed on the bed, or “The Pencil,” in which a schoolkid hides in a bathroom stall while a shooter guns down his classmates, most are funny. They feature likable schmoes to whom we can all relate, walk in their shoes – in their masks – indeed. In “Those Eyes in the Rearview,” a man gets into the Uber he’s just called. “I saw his eyes in the rearview. They were red and crazed.” The driver tells his passenger that he’s just killed a man he caught sleeping with his wife, and the passenger is his hostage. Like the passenger, we feel our blood pressure rise, our pulses race; only, two-thirds of the way through the story, the driver “pulls off his mask,” reveals he is an aspiring actor and was just having the passenger on. “That was some top-notch acting, right?” he boasts. “Come on, give me that.”
In the story, “Flatware,” we encounter a similarly bizarre situation in which a man is sure his home is being broken into and stabs a fork into the neck of the “intruder,” only to learn that the intruder is the brother of his neighbor, come to retrieve a ball his nephew has knocked over the fence into the protagonist’s yard. A comic rush to the emergency room follows, the protagonist taking full responsibility. When they return, the protagonist apologizes again (and again), shakes the man’s hand, returns to the kitchen where he’d been eating his Chinese takeout (hence, the fork conveniently in his hand when the “burglar” came in), “wondering if I should call Tina at her sister’s, where she always went after one of our big blow-outs.” In a flash, then, we see the backstory, why this guy was on edge in the first place.
In the story, “Wise Sunglasses,” the lonely unnamed female protagonist collects sunglasses – her mask. In an aside, Scotellaro writes, “The heart-shaped pair were Pete’s favorites. ‘My Lolita,’ he’d say, though she was far from it, and he’d find the real thing soon enough.” That’s about all we hear about “Pete,” but in a flash we intuit the protagonist’s loneliness, the betrayal at its base. She’s wearing her owl sunglasses when the story concludes, “not feeling the least bit wise.”
In “A Disadvantage of Momentum” we encounter Phil and Nan, post-surgery in a hospital room where Phil lies, recuperating. At their weekly session with a couples counselor, Heidi, they’d been told to “spice it up” after they’d become empty-nesters, the last kid off to college. Nan goes along with one of Phil’s adolescent fantasies, while they are driving home from dinner, her face in his lap, but a sudden fender bender at a stoplight results in a bite too deep. Nan asks Phil, “Anything left?” “Enough,” he replies. The story ends:
They heard some laughter and watched as shadows gathered behind the curtain, grew. Then a hand reached in and swung it open.
Of course, some stories are better than others. I’m not going to rank all sixty-eight, but every one of them does pack that flash punch. Robert Scotellaro is a master of this form. It’s magic!
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/What-Are-Chances-Robert-Scotellaro/dp/1950413268
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
This is How He Learned to Love: Stories by Randall Brown
By Thaddeus Rutkowski
The very brief stories in this collection by the founder of Matter Press are related by theme (many focus on family relationships) and by their consistently surprising points of view. Randall Brown’s poetic descriptions of ordinary occurrences are juiced up, squeezed together, and laid out in passages that open one’s mind to what might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Even the book’s cover art reflects this magnified approach: Over a blank-beige background, we see the enlarged, almost abstract head of a grasshopper or praying mantis whose eye pupils point in different directions.
In the micro story “Deliberately,” near the beginning of the book, the main character (a boy) finds a relic in the ground: a cone-topped beer can. The odd-shaped can provides a link to the past, when the boy’s mother, as a teenager, might have buried the can in the ground as “a time capsule.” Was the boy’s mother a drinker? Possibly. In the present, the boy becomes aware of “a pen of guinea pigs left out in the sun.” Do the neglected pets have anything to do with the lost beer can, with the boy himself? The boy’s mother denies responsibility, but it is implied that she should have watched the animals—and perhaps the boy himself. All of this comes in a “story” that is about eighty-five words long.
If there is a narrative arc in this book, it follows the protagonists/narrators as they move from childhood to adulthood. In “A Slight Adjective Used to Describe a Sound,” the main character has a wife and a daughter, and teaches online. (The piece is prescient in that many college teachers lecture online in these days of quarantine.) The husband/father/teacher goes away to “the sea” for a few days. Here, the main issue arises: Why does Robert Frost characterize the din of waves as “misty” in the line “The shattered waves made a misty din”? (The line comes from the poem “Once by the Pacific,” which is not named here.) The waves, the protagonist thinks, “not the din, should be misty.” The piece ends with an encounter with an unidentified woman who talks to the man, then throws her lit cigar into the water, where supposedly it will make a “rusty sizzle.” The story ends as the mystery of another “misty din,” that of the doused cigar, is about to unravel.
Most of the thirty-seven stories in this collection, which was first runner-up in Sonder Press’s chapbook contest, are less than a page long. But as a result of the interior design (where all pieces start on a right-hand page), the book is ninety-two pages long. This Is How He Learned to Love could be a quick read, but I recommend lingering over the stories. Rereading brings the rewards of discovering new meanings below the chiseled surfaces.
You can find the book here: www.thesonderpress.com
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won an Electronic Literature award for multicultural fiction. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.