In Voice, FP Dorchak returns to many of the metaphysical themes he has explored throughout his other works, but he does so in a megaphysical, not to mention sexually explicit, way. The novel opens with protagonist Benjamin Becker on a plane bound for his hometown to deal with the dispersal of his father’s estate. Divorced and at a crossroads in his life, Benjamin has a head full of questions: “What was the meaning of life? Why ere we all put here to endure physical existence? Why did people have to die? Why was honesty so damned hard? Was true love ever obtainable if people continued to lust after seemingly greener pastures?” Though the novel grapples to some extent with all of these questions, the final question is its primary focus. To answer it, Dorchak has his protagonist fall for a flight attendant named Amanda and an apparently imaginary lover named Rebecca in rapid succession. That Benjamin is attracted to both concurrently only adds to his own confusion about the nature of love, and the fact that he attempts to bring Rebecca to life by projecting her personality into a mannequin doesn’t help matters. (Nor does his growing suspicion that Rebecca may not be as imaginary as he first thought.) What emerges from all of Benjamin’s turmoil is a bizarre and mind-bending meditation on love, being, and reincarnation that would feel right at home in an episode of the X-Files. Or maybe the XXX-Files.
Pretty much everything you need to know about digging into Tom Williams’s newest book is in the title: Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. For me, it’s one of the best titles in recent memory, and shows readers the humor Williams brings to the topic of race before they open the book.
Don’t mistake that humor for flippancy. The book is funny, but as a result of raw honesty about the situation.
And do not mistake that raw honesty for an oppressive read. Williams does not pull his punches, but nor does he ever pile on.
Yes, every story in Among the Wild Mulattos deals with race in America, but some do so more intensely than others, some with outlandish humor and others with a darker tone, creating an ebb and flow of emotion and intensity through the book.
Williams’s collection begins with “The Story of My Novel: Three Piece Combo With Drink,” a story about a writer—a bi-racial man—who can’t sell his writing in the traditional manner, and instead queries his favorite fast food chain. The chain publishes his novel, but changes it to make it a piece of propaganda for the company. The character then embarks on a hilarious, slapstick-style tour of franchises all around the country to promote what is only sort of his book. The heightened style Williams employs here adds to the humorous farce of it all.
However, the range of this collection is revealed when one contrasts “The Story of My Novel” with “Ethnic Studies,” a story about four men of different racial minorities recruited to stand in front of a college class and be, essentially, humiliated by the professors and their students’ ignorant questions. The professors, in a misguided and self-righteous attempt to broaden their students’ horizons, eventually become the butt of the jokes when the men brought into the class take control of the conversation.
“Ethnic Studies” is a funny story, especially at the end when the men parody their own stereotypes, which only makes the sheltered students more uncomfortable. But the style is more terse than many of the other stories, and the indignities the characters suffer are more brutal and overt. But, in the end, the humor is what Williams uses to balance things out, to restore a sense of justice to the story.
In constructing such a collection, Williams achieves a deft balance of poignancy, clarity, and humor. His work reminded me of a quote by Vonnegut:
“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
It would be natural and justified to write a tearful book about the frustrating and exhausting situation of race in contemporary America, but to write one with laughter is its own accomplishment, perhaps a more difficult one. And, the clean up from this reading experience is pretty easy.
Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales is available here.
I interviewed Tony Rauch back in 2011 upon the publication of his short story collection, Eyeballs Growing All Over Me — Again. Now he’s out with a new collection, What If I Go Down on My Knees?, which finds the author moving forward with his craft and breaking strange new ground. I caught up with him recently, and we chatted about his new collection as well as his recent quest to find a new pair of blue jeans…
What have you been up to lately? Mostly sending emails for promotion of my new book “What if I got down on my knees?” a short story collection of romantic misadventures and entanglements. People can read more about it on this web page: https://trauch.wordpress.com/books/whatifigotdown/. The book has been getting some nice reviews, and more are pending. At this point in a book release, marketing takes up 80% of my writing time. This includes contacting potential reviewers and answering interviews. I enjoy the interviews because it’s nice to converse with people who are also interested in literature, and they ask some questions I had not thought about, so it gets me thinking on other levels. But sometimes I feel like I’ve become an emailer and sales person instead of someone interested in writing and exploring literary ideas. I guess that’s all part of it though. I’m also looking for new blue jeans.
The first story in What If I Go Down On My Knees? is about a man who runs a stampede of dogs through a town. What inspired this scenario? A sudden interest in being a part of a huge dog stampede. I was walking my dog and my sister’s dog and we were running and running and thought it would be really cool if the dogs had more friends and if there were more dogs with us. So I thought: how could that come about and where would we go? What context would that be plausible? So it was just me extrapolating an everyday event, sort of a wish.
The narrator of the story describes this running of dogs as a kind of art. Is there a parallel to be drawn between your own chosen art form, writing, and running dogs through churches, supermarkets, gas station, and alleys? Between running words through a reader’s mind and dogs through a town? There is no parallel for me. But maybe a reader may see it differently. It is for the reader to decide for themselves. I can only present the material, and hopefully that presentation is as clear as it can be. Writing is an art of the mind, where the dog stampede would be more of a visual art and thus have more limitations. A writer’s words can convey many stories and hopefully several possible interpretations of those stories. The art of the dog running, the herding and stampeding, is an act that can be seen in different ways by different people – as a poetic respite, as a disruption, etc. So that is the only connection I can see – like looking at clouds, different people may interpret the clouds as different things. I have been finding some jeans that may be suitable, to put your reader’s minds at ease. What concerns me is when literature tries to be perfect. A writer is reflecting a human reality, which by its nature is not perfect. So why write characters, dialog, and plots that are smooth and eloquent? In reality the way people speak and react to things is not always smooth and eloquent. To me, attempts at that come off as contrived. Though it does not bother me when other art forms – visual arts and music – strive to be smooth, in balance, well proportioned, mathematically perfect, etc. Because some of that is trying to be a reflection of nature, which at times is perfectly proportioned.
Your narrator mentions in passing that running a hundred dogs through an alley needs to be “done properly” in order to rise to the level of art. What are your own thoughts on the “proper” way to write? What makes good writing? What elevates writing to the level of art? And what should art do? Clarity of writing, but not necessarily of purpose and intent so as to leave room for the reader to assign their own interpretations and feelings into the situation. Imagination. Originality. Energy – a story should move quickly in a direction. Showing things in a different way, presenting new ideas or perspectives, another point of view. Art should attempt to assign life meaning and purpose, should attempt to explain why things happen, should aid in feeling empathy for others, should inform. Or it should be a respite from troubles and the daily sameness in taking us places we normally could not go. There is ‘meaning’ type art and ‘decorative’ type art. Both types are valid. Much like new dungarees have a function, but also must be decorative and comfortable.
Who are some writers who, in your opinion, rise to the level of creating art? Who inspires you? Who were you reading while you were working on What If I Go Down On My Knees? In general, that would be a long list, but for this book what I was looking at were short stories. Some of my favorites include:
- “for Esme – with love and squalor” by J.D. Salinger
- “winter dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- “the betrayed kingdom” by Richard Brautigan
- “murderers” by Leonard Michaels
- “our work and why we do it” and “the wound” by Donald Barthelme
- “from the floodlands” by Adrienne Clasky
- and sci-fi from the 40s, 50s, and 60s as it introduces ideas and possibilities.
To me these deal with realizations and change, with challenging readers to see the world in new and different ways, or expanding the short fiction format. What is life without the opportunities for future possibilities? Close yourself off and you die, open your aperture and you have many paths to explore. Hopefully, I am unique and different, but I’m probably an amalgamation of past experiences, formats, and themes that reached deeply into me for some reason I am unable to see at this time. At my best I am a combination of the favorites listed above, with myself mixed in.
And what if you do go down on your knees? I had not thought of that. Most of these stories are story starters as life is a continuum, sometimes with no clear beginning or ending. I guess if you have to beg for something, for someone to stay, then that is an indication that this someone means a great deal to you, or there is a void in your life. But you also have to let things go. This frees space for other things to arrive. But getting to that point where you are on your knees at least is getting yourself to see this need, so at the very least you are arriving at a point of departure, at a point of decision making, at a point of clarity in knowing that you need or want something, so maybe that’s not so bad, finding a hierarchy of needs and realizing a priority list is being arranged. You can decide what jeans to purchase. If you go to several large stores, you can find a variety and that will help decisions fall into place – to see what’s out there, what’s available. You just have to get out there and keep looking, keep going. Inspiration can come from real life occurrences, and sometimes those situations can be painful or confusing. Sometimes you don’t find those jeans that fit.
Word on the street is that Elvis Costello has a memoir due in October. For those who can’t wait, there’s Richard Crouse’s Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True, a meticulously researched account of Costello’s early years and the release of his first LP with independent label Stiff Records. Of particular interest with respect to this volume is Crouse’s attention to the milieu out of which both My Aim Is True and Costello himself emerged. Indeed, the sense one gets is that Costello’s identity congealed around the production and marketing of his first album in ways that few other acts ever did. “Elvis Costello,” the stage name adopted fairly late in the proceedings by singer-songwriter Declan McManus, emerges as somewhat of a construct, an amalgam of various mythical figures of rock’s colorful history — Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in particular. Crouse also does an excellent job of contextualizing the album in question. Not punk by any stretch of the imagination (Costello’s backing group for this project was an American country-rock band called Clover), My Aim Is True nonetheless appealed to the raw DIY aesthetic as well as the iconoclastic attitudes of the indie and punk movements of its time. Though relatively brief (and appropriately so, given its narrow focus), Elvis Is King presents a tight, thorough portrait of the musician as a young man that will appeal not only to die-hard Costello fans but rock historians in general.
Not exactly a small press book, but here’s a link to my review of Jonathan Lethem’s new collection, Lucky Alan: http://monkeybicycle.net/book-review-lucky-alan-by-jonathan-lethem/
The opening story of Broken Record Nostalgia by Caleb Michael Sarvis reads like something out of Raymond Carver — or something Carver might have written if he’d been a twenty-something writer applying his craft in the twenty-somethingth century. It’s called “Click Click Harvey,” and it follows the adventures (or lack thereof) of three roommates who track down the man who sideswiped the car that belongs to one of them. Some mayhem ensues but, as is frequently the case in Carver’s no-frills fiction, what’s really front and center is the broken world in which the characters live: cars drive by, televisions churn out hours and hours of meaningless drivel, women and men struggle halfheartedly to understand each other, and lot of drinking takes place. It’s an atmosphere that persists throughout the collection, but with each successive story, Broken Record Nostalgia grows increasingly surreal — and increasingly poignant.
Many of the stories in the collection center on a character named Marcus, whose brother Noah’s suicide has left a hole in the center of his life. Early in the collection, in a story titled “Thoreau in a Phone Booth,” Marcus contemplates committing suicide himself, much to the dismay of Noah’s one-time girlfriend, Arella, who spends a phantasmagorical night trying to keep the seemingly inevitable from happening. Later in the collection, we learn that Noah used to dress in a bear costume and wander through the woods in a vain attempt at escaping the madness of life among humans. In the same story, “Bewildered Idea of Resurrection,” Marcus is engaged in a misguided attempt at rewriting the past a la something akin to Donnie Darko.
Through it all, characters come and go, drifting beyond the boundaries of their own stories to appear in the margins of others, always searching for meaning, always coming up short. Indeed, if there is any meaning to be found in the chaos of life, Sarvis insists throughout Broken Record Nostalgia, it’s meaning we create from the scattered pieces of our lives.
Okay, so the real “holiday” is Friday 13th, but for some of us, downloading a free horror book might be the perfect antidote to all the chocolate hearts and roses invading our mental space on the following day. For the next five days, Crystal Lake Publishing will be giving away free e-copies of their anthology Fear the Reaper and their nonfiction guide to writing Horror 101: The Way Forward. Having read Horror 101, I can say that while its focus is horror writing, much of the book’s advice is applicable to writing in general — and at this price, it’s certainly worth a look! (Click on the titles above to access the free downloads.)