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.
The subtitle of Don’t Smell the Floss says it all: “amazing short stories by matty byloos.” Though it’s tempting to read this as a bit of snarky self-promotion along the lines of Kathy Griffin’s Official Book Club Selection, Byloos has the writing chops to pull it off legitimately. The fourteen stories collected in this volume really are amazing in every sense of the word. For one thing, they take the reader behind the scenes of lives we might not normally think about (or even want to think about) but which are no less real despite their clandestine nature. In one story, for example, he gives us a largely dysfunctional couple whose only meaningful communication occurs when they discuss the comings and goings of a fictitious serial killer. In another, he takes the reader behind the scenes of a pornography shoot to reveal the soft side of the business — which isn’t to say that he romanticizes his subject at all in this story. On the contrary, he explores the effect of pornography on everyone involved in the business from all of its intricate angles. Yes, the participants are jaded, but their lives are so complicated and splintered, their loneliness and insecurity so palpable, that it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for them.
The (at times bizarre) subject matter, however, isn’t the only thing Don’t Smell the Floss has going for it. It turns out that Byloos is an amazing (there’s that word again!) writer–a true “craftsman” of the written word, as one of the book’s blurbs rightly puts it. Stylistically, the book reads like a cross between George Saunders and Chuck Palahniuk; it’s fast-moving, occasionally gross, but always smart and funny in a disturbing “I can’t believe I just laughed at that” kind of way. Take, for example, the opening tale of this collection, “One Day, Letter from a Ghost Leg,” in which an amputated leg writes a love letter to the body from which it’s been severed. The premise alone is wild enough to win my undying respect, but what rockets Byloos into the realm of genius in my estimation is that the leg quotes Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist as it tries to make sense of the separation that has just occurred.
Needless to say, the fact that I find all of this so compelling says as much about me as it says about the book. Along these lines, it probably isn’t a book for everybody–but what book is? What I will say about it is this: If you like compelling, inventive writing and you don’t flinch (too much) at fairly gritty yet matter of fact descriptions of subjects like pornography, amputation, and masturbation (each a form of loneliness in its own way), then you’ll find a lot to love in Don’t Smell the Floss.