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.
Reading Steve Almond’s short fiction collections in relatively rapid succession is a little bit like listening to your favorite band evolve over the course of several albums. The movement from Almond’s My Life in Heavy Metal to The Evil B.B. Chow to his latest, God Bless America, is akin, for example, to listening to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sergeant Pepper in the order they were recorded. All of this is a complicated way of saying that as good as each of Almond’s fiction titles is — as honest, as compelling, as attuned to the mysteries of the human heart — the next still manages to break new ground and go new places. Almond, in short, is still capable of not just wowing his readers but of surprising them as well.
What’s especially striking about this collection is that it sees Almond exploring and at times pushing the boundary between the real and the surreal. Early on, he presents the story of a would-be tax preparer whose love of acting gets him tangled up in a Boston-tea-party-themed drug ring. Elsewhere, a dying patriarch takes cues from a hallucinatory bird as he struggles to offer fatherly advice to his mostly estranged son. And then, of course, there’s the American accountant who finds himself all but trapped by a Sheik in a luxury hotel in the United Arab Emirates. Given the current political and cultural landscape in the United States, the odd turns in this collection feel entirely appropriate: surreal times call for surreal fiction.
Although things tend to take a turn for the strange throughout God Bless America, Almond’s characteristic fondness for humanity and its myriad competing desires continues to drive his fiction. Indeed, the author comes of first and foremost as a student of the human condition. Throughout the collection, he depicts a wide range of characters doing their utmost to do well by each other — the mother struggling with her son’s PTSD, the young waiter trying to keep an unhinged customer happy — while simultaneously trying to eke out a small modicum of happiness for themselves. In this sense, the book is highly realistic.
We are a hopeful species, Almond is at pains to illustrate in each story. More to the point, however, his stories suggest that our hope, despite all evidence to the contrary, is actually warranted. Life is strange and frequently challenging, but on the whole, life is also ultimately good.
-Review by Marc Schuster
Let’s start with the dimensions: seven inches tall by four-and-a-quarter inches wide by about an eighth of an inch thick. In other words, You Can Finish This Later is, at least in physical terms, a small book — or perhaps “portable” is a better word. You can keep a copy in the breast pocket of a dress shirt, if you’re so inclined, or in the back pocket of your blue jeans, or in the front pocket of an overcoat. I mention this because I think everyone should, in fact, keep a copy of this tiny gem on hand, at least for a little while, and page through it from time to time the way others might page through a pocket copy of the New Testament or the US Constitution. It will make you feel better about yourself. It will make you feel less alone in the world. It will give you hope.
Though this particular chapbook is actually a collection of very short fiction, I was convinced from page one that I was reading the confessions of an actual human being. Thoughts on abandoned dogs. Ruminations on how to meet women. Lamentations on the lack of decent chairs in the universe. What begins to emerge from the blurry edges of Mike Parish’s micronarratives is not just a portrait of a lonely artist as a young man, but a portrait of humanity’s shared loneliness — an image of the thoughts we all have, or variations thereof, that we hesitate to share for fear of further alienation. Parish strips away the self-consciousness of his narrators and allows them to share their deepest secrets, their most uncertain moments. That these moments and secrets are, more often than not, of the most mundane variety underscores the humanity of this collection.
And, now, back to the dimensions. What if each of us carried a tiny chapbook around at all times? Thirty pages or so of tiny vignettes? Slices of our lives? The sad moments, the lonely moments, but also the happy moments, the moments of quotidian transcendence? And what if these vignettes weren’t fictional but true? What if we gathered the most telling moments of our lives and shared them with each other in trim, elegant volumes like this one?
When we met new people in such a world, we could exchange our tiny books, sit down for about a half-hour or so, and peruse each other’s souls. It would be like handing over passports as we cross the infinite country that spans the borders between us: I’ve been here and here and here and here, and I see you’ve been there and there and there and there, and — look at that! — we’ve both been here and there, and we both came back alive! Isn’t that something?
Imagine the implications… The dating scene (one focus of You Can Finish This Later) would become infinitely less complicated as the unattached passed tiny books back and forth in an effort to get to know each other and search for like-minded mates. And car accidents! Imagine swapping a collection of tiny narratives along with your insurance information at the site of your next fender-bender: suddenly the asshole who rear-ended you isn’t so bad. I mean, sure, he’s still the asshole who rear-ended you, but he’s a human asshole, just like you. And as each of you takes some time to read the other’s book, your passions cool, your heart rates return to normal, and you can discuss the situation like rational adults.
What I’m saying is that it would be a truly wonderful world if everyone wrote a little book like You Can Finish This Later, but the next-best thing would be a world in which everyone were to read a book like this one. Illustrated by Dan Tarnowski with a series of child-like drawings that call to mind the art of John Lennon’s early fiction collections In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, You Can Finish This Later offers a glimpse of the exquisite loneliness of the human animal in a way that never gives into despair but, on the contrary, offers hope for us all. We can connect, Parish insists on every page. We only have to try.