In many ways, Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless offers the perfect counterpoint to Spencer Dew’s Here Is How it Happens (reviewed here two weeks ago). Where Dew’s protagonists are college-aged rebels doing their best to avoid making the leap to post-college mainstream society, Isard’s novel finds a somewhat similar similar pair of lovers adjusting, at times uncomfortably, to a bourgeois suburban lifestyle about a decade after graduation.
The novel begins with narrator Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa moving into a new home and learning upon meeting their new neighbors that the beloved music of their youth has been reduced to the status of a glorified tchotchke in the form of a Fender Jaguar signed by the members of Nirvana and mounted behind a thick pane of glass. That Nathan makes a good living as a corporate hatchet man only adds to his growing sense of ennui, and Lisa’s sudden desire to start a family makes matters worse.
The problem isn’t necessarily that he ever saw himself as a rebel, nor is it that he sees settling down in suburbia as a sign of giving up on his dreams. The problem, as far as he can tell, is that he never really had any big dreams to begin with — so he does what any red-blooded American would do. He goes out and gets one. Or at least he stumbles upon one when his old college buddy shows up with a scheme to climb Mount Everest. What follows is a journey of self-discovery that allows Nathan to recognize that what matters most in his life. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the mountain.)
In terms of style, Isard’s writing reminds me of Shaun Haurin and Curt Smith. Like Haurin, Isard places the musical tastes of his characters front and center through much of the narrative while, like Smith, he demonstrates a firm understanding of the compromises we all make on the long, winding path to adulthood. I’d mention that Nathan’s relative lack of direction and ambition echo the same traits in Charley Schwartz, the beleaguered narrator of my own novel, The Grievers, but that would be self-serving, so I’ll just say that on nearly every page of Conquistador of the Useless I found something that struck a chord. I’d even be willing to bet that anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling.
I’m always excited when Curtis Smith comes out with a new collection of short fiction. I’ve been a fan of his for years now, and his ability to tell a story with wit, wry humor, a good turn of phrase, and, most of all, human kindness, makes Curt’s stories a joy to read. His latest collection, Beasts and Men, is no exception.
Most of the stories in Beasts and Men take place in rural America, and Smith’s characters tend to be outsiders struggling, frequently with heartbreaking yet hopeful results, to find a place in the world. There’s the pair of adulterers who strike a dog with their car only to discover the true nature of their relationship. There’s the high-school outcast trying to carve some modicum of self-possession through prolonged silences and incessant sketching. There’s the young man standing in the backyard of the woman who used to love him, drunk and howling for the love he’s lost. There are winners and losers of all stripes in this collection — all struggling to make sense of the world, all searching for meaning, all intensely and utterly human. Indeed, Smith’s gift for depicting the private moment of spiritual and emotional crisis is on full display throughout Beasts and Men. That he does it so lovingly and with such great care for his characters marks him not only as an author of great skill, but also as one of great compassion.
I’m slightly biased with respect to this collection of flash fiction for two reasons: it includes a short piece that I wrote and I designed the cover (using art by one of my favorite artists, Anne Buckwalter). So rather than give a review, I’ll share the copy from the back cover:
Stripped is a collection with a twist. Yes, the fiction contained herein includes works from some of the best-known names in flash fiction as well as the work of emerging writers, but the bylines have been removed so you can’t tell who wrote what. What’s more, the stories hinge largely on gender roles — but with the authors’ identites stripped from their stories, editor Nicole Monaghan has created a bit of a guessing game. Did a woman, for example, write that piece about ambivalence toward motherhood? Or was it a man? More to the point, does it really matter? Or is there something bigger going on when men and women stretch their minds and imagine what it might be like to be the other? Authors include Meg Tuite, Michelle Reale, Myfanwy Collins, Tara L. Masih, Michael Martone, Nathan Alling Long, Curtis Smith, and Randall Brown.
Three years ago (almost to the day, give or take a week or so), I started this blog immediately after putting down Curtis Smith‘s collection of short stories,The Species Crown. The collection was so good — so thoroughly enjoyable and moving — that it turned me not only into a fan of Smith’s work, but a fan of the small press movement in general. Since then, various small presses have put out two novels by Smith (Sound + Noise and Truth or Something Like It, both from Casperian Press), another short story collection (Bad Monkeyfrom Press 53), and now Witness, a collection of essays from Sunny Outside. The phrase hardest working man in bookbiz comes to mind.
Witness finds Smith exploring many of the themes that make his fiction both so endearing and so real. It turns out that Smith — like many of his characters — is a dedicated family man and educator. His essays touch on work, fatherhood, tattoos, art, literature, music, life, death, and everything in between. Through it all, Smith proves his talent for finding epiphanies in the quotidian details of daily life: the promise of adventure inherent in the smile of his young son’s toy giraffe, the squandered potential of an errant student as signified by the empty chair where he used to sit, intimations of mortality in the warm sanctuary of an ATM kiosk on a wintry day.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Smith is both an educator and an author that makes his writing so good. In a piece titled “The Borders of Diane Arbus,” he notes that although he’s far from perfect as an educator, it’s his imperfections that compel him to keep working at his craft: “Twenty-five years, and I still make mistakes, failing to decipher the hints laid before me. Despite my daily stumbles, I don’t divert my eyes, knowing a signal may wait in the next furrowed eyebrow or curled lip.” What becomes clear throughout the collection is that Smith’s constant attention to detail applies to reading not just his students but the world at large.
A moving and insightful collection, Witness does a wonderful job of shedding light on the miracles that occur daily in our imperfect world.