Hard as it may be to believe, Die Empty by Kirk Jones is kind of dark. The novel centers on an overweight insurance broker named Lance whose recent acquisition of the entire Masters of the Universe toy line has failed to brighten the onset of middle age or his sneaking and well-founded suspicion that his wife is having affair with his best friend and next-door neighbor, Dave. Complicating matters is the fact that Death — dressed in his traditional dark hood — has entered Lance’s life and offered him a deal he can’t refuse: a guarantee of forty more years in exchange for a lifetime of imagining creative new ways to help Death increase his body count. And, it turns out, the job is fraught with complications.
The humor throughout Die Empty is extremely dry, and the narrative arc follows a weirdness curve that can only be described as exponential. Things don’t just get curiouser and curiouser. They go bat-shit crazy in a David Lynch kind of way. Indeed, Jones’s blending of the mundane and the bizarre gives Die Empty the feeling of a cross between a film like Blue Velvet and a George Saunders story. That Jones narrates the story in second-person adds a layer of creepy intimacy to the proceedings. Imagine, for example, being told that you’re not only working for death and passively plotting to kill your wife, but also that you’re into a category of entertainment labeled “nun porn” and that a man with no pants named Gerald (who happens to be leading you to an abandoned cabin in the woods) may or may not be your father, and you’ll get a sense of the position Jones is putting you in when you sit down to read this novel.
As strange as it is, Die Empty is extremely accessible — particularly in comparison to Jones’s 2011 novella, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, which is a fascinating if slightly bizarre read about a man who falls into a wood chipper and is reincarnated as a man-shaped mass of tears. Clearly Jones is an author with a vivid imagination and a penchant for oddness. With Die Empty, he uses those gifts to explore the meaning and potential meaningless of life in a world that often seems designed with only death in mind.
Maybe it’s because he’s working with a new, more progressive press, but Dick Cheney in Shorts finds author Charles Holdefer in a puckish, experimental mood a few beats off from the more realist tone and style of his previous works like The Contractor and Back in the Game. As the title suggests, the specter of former US Vice President Dick Cheney playfully drifts through this collection of short works and takes a variety of forms including (but not limited to) a curious if somewhat prudish customer in a “luxury pet shoppe,” a little boy with butterscotch hair who taunts his father’s demons, a figure very much like the historical Dick Cheney who shows up in short pants at a cookout attended by a man with a pair of horns protruding from his forehead, and — in the biggest stretch of the collection — admitting that he misled Americans about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war in Iraq. In addition to Cheney, the figures who populate Holdefer’s imaginative landscapes include a man haunted by a phantom penis (a Dick of sorts, one is forced to wonder?), a syphilitic Bavarian baker who invents the fruitcake, and Leo the Lion of MGM films fame. Marked by a combination of repressed desire and existential angst, the characters all search for meaning against a backdrop of blabbering televisions and endless stretches of highway. In other words, these characters, as bizarre as they may seem, essentially inhabit the “real” world that you and I call home. This juxtaposition gives Holdefer’s fiction a dreamlike quality akin a David Lynch film in which identity is a fluid concept and the bizarre sits neatly and without comment next to the quotidian. Indeed, if the “Book Club Questions” that accompany Dick Cheney in Shorts (e.g., “Do you think enhanced interrogation would improve the honesty of your group?”) were ever actually used to guide a book discussion, Holdefer’s miracle would be complete as such an act would allow his fictive vision to bleed over into reality. Who knows, dear reader? Maybe you’ll be the one to make it happen.