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AICN BOOKS! Special Short Story Edition! Frank Bascombe Reviews WHY THE DEVIL CHOSE NEW ENGLAND And KNOCKEMSTIFF!

Published at: Jan. 24, 2008, 4:30 a.m. CST

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. The one and only Frank Bascombe is back with another batch of book reviews for you, this time with an emphasis on collections of short fiction...

In the long slog that is life I’ve had the great fortune of meeting and becoming friends with some truly fantastic and wonderfully talented people. I met Forrest Harding through my wife who went to college with this talented young man. Forrest has always been a serious movie buff of a highly literate and well spoken nature, and for most of the time I’ve known him he’s worked in Los Angeles in the film business. He kept talking about making a movie and with all the wildness that is life he finally managed to put something together. I was floored by ‘The Watercooler’ when I first saw it. Of course it reminded me of The Office, (UK version and still my favorite) and even more so of life in the cubical, looking for love, and also how good a story like this can be… if done right and quickly. I loved this piece of filmmaking start to finish; the camerawork is amazing, the acting spot on, the writing and direction funny and fluid. Go here to check it out! Anyway, I’m here to point you towards what might be good to read. I hope I haven’t disappointed you, and if I have, well…that’s life. It’s Not A Secret Unless I Tell Someone Why The Devil Chose New England For His Work by Jason Brown Open City Books I’ve waited a long time for Jason Brown to write more short stories. It’s like the time I’ve spent waiting for Zoë Heller to write another book, or A.M. Homes to return to the keypad and spin more mayhem, it’s been a productive wait but I’m always surfing the web for rumors that more work is on its way. His first book, ‘Driving the Heart and Other Stories’ was a forgotten hardcover that received a front of store face out upon its release and slowly gained traction through reviews and then disappeared. It’s interesting to watch a writer work within his own success, I don’t mean commercial success, more like his ability to flex his muscles in the form he most excels in and with this new collection his talents are scary good. It’s exhilarating to see a writer work with such purpose and conviction while composing an eleven piece orchestra with aplomb and precision all the while keeping the flash to a minimum. This is hardcore literature and Brown seems to keep the all knowing omnipresent narrator in check with only the slyest of hands which when let loose does his handiwork and offers a trembling coherency that allows its characters to speak either to themselves or to each other. And in the end both voices come out sounding like a desperate bank teller recalling a bank robbery. In ‘She’ the lead story; Brown delivers a town in full bloom that won’t allow a certain young lady to have her way with a man, and sometimes it’s seen from the other side, his, which leaves you confused until the final gun shot rings out and everyone realizes that all things come to an end. We’re all slightly connected to each other, whether we like it or not, and in these tales something about the burly and rugged Northeast seeps into everything that could possibly mean anything to anyone. The land is regaled by the folly of the human’s who occupy these forests, oceans, rivers, and dirty man made landscapes. The woman who lets her forest get decimated by a money grubbing relative seems to find some happiness in recalling her long dead husband as she can control that, not her family who wants to rob her gold teeth before she goes into the pine box. In the title story a body throws itself off a cliff only to narrowly miss a chance at death and come up injured and embarrassed. This isn’t a boy who might be good, we know he’s bad, he knows he’s done horrible things and you flinch at the act but feel shortchanged by lack of death that surrounds him. Good things do happen to bad people, death would be too good for some of these characters. Girls go missing, bodies get buried in the flower garden, sprinkle these incidents over the course of a novel and you’ve got a mildly convincing portrait of a group or region. For instance the son who leaves his father to drown in the family sailboat while he goes for help, a riveting story, but in a collection like this these stories are important and vital like nails in a coffin, each one acting in concert with the next to keep it all from turning to hot ass milk. It’s a strange and wonderful portrait of a land that mimics its regenerative qualities by bringing past love affairs to light just as the day comes to an end for one resident but reminds us all that things wouldn’t end if they didn’t end badly. I’m glad to have had the chance to visit with these people, seen the trees in the pasture sway back and forth either from the wind or the teeth of a chainsaw. Or sadly witnessing the ice on the roads as one logger goes back to save his downed co-worker. This place resonates with you long after you close the book, and stays with you like smoke from a bonfire. Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock Doubleday I was hesitant to read this collection past the first story. Something about the over flowing ashtray being used as a receptacle for beer, when something, anything else would have been okay to use. I don't know, like the bottle the beer was in? Dad is worried about a hex, and the son who watches from the back seat as his father vomits the cigarette laden beer onto the parking lot of the drive-in movie theater. Dad gets so shit-faced that when junior needs to take a leak Dad stomps a stranger down to an inch of his life just because he can, while the two of them wade through the public restroom at the drive-in. This is just the start of something truly unique, terrific and frightening. Pollock a seasoned first timer rains down a sorrowful collection of margin dwellers the likes of which you've never seen, that is unless you've read Harry Crews, and even then, well, they can't hold a candle to the residents of ‘Knockemstiff’. One young man stumbles on a brother and sister having anal sex, willingly (and repeatedly), in a river bed, our hero only watches, later, after a fatal beating is handed out a certain child is stuffed into a dark hole where he is never found. In this collection of connected stories you're never sure whether to shit or go blind. These tales aren't easy to read and with a quote from Mr. Palahniuk, (the only quote this book will need) you won't have any choice but to grab this festering collection and read in complete horror as Pollock does nothing more than report on the nearly dead and damaged within his atmosphere. There are many collections that shine the light on the sadness of the human race; short stories sometimes have that power to do just that and this is exemplified in their brevity which usually makes them more meaningful. There is man who goes through the windshield of his car and when the cops come to take him away they find panties of a young girl in the wreckage, a young girl; like six or seven years old. He doesn't have kids, or a wife, even a girlfriend. It's throw away images like this that make your skin crawl but somehow you can't look away. Wait there's more. Pollock likes men who show their muscles, wait in the cold outside a fast food restaurant and flex their bodies to the nearest passerby. (I saw a man do this in SOHO once, it was the strangest thing). Pollock doesn't so much deliver this memorable batch of oddities, as he burnishes each story by grinding out the truly hideous details of a life gone of the rails. But if your living life like Pollock describes, has it really gone off the rails, if you don’t know any better how can you aspire to it? A man who is a half assed thief realizes his child is something more than he appears especially when Dad is out stealing. His mom, well, she's the only one with good blood, Dad has something really wrong with him so he can't sell his, and when the money gets tight, they sell hers. Then there's the obvious predilection that these characters have towards sex with minors, girls mostly, kid on kid, lonely adult desiring it, or just light banter about the act, which is more offensive? I'll let you decide. There is a scene towards the start of this collection where a woman, mostly a stranger, (but everyone knows each other in ‘Knockemstiff’), gets into a car and has sex with all the inhabitants and then douches herself with a gallon of milk she was planning on giving to her child. You see she was on her way to being a good mother but had to stop off for a quickie. The remaining milk sticks around in the car to bear witness to more chaos. Which begs the question, did the baby get any milk? The men in these stories are reckless and maintain no moral center and the women dream of Brad Pitt, it's a sad reality. The most brutal story in this collection is 'The Fights', which closes the book. Not because the father throws around racial slurs like they're so many hello's and goodbyes, but how the son who is trying to stay sober and give money he stole from his mother back to her all while dealing with his sponsor who is African American. He try’s to keep from losing his mind while his base frequency is to drink, smoke and express his racial hatred. I sensed a real brilliance in this story that reminded me of Carver, not so much the minimalism, but the sorrow in everyday life, the life mislead, or the path chosen in haste. Pollock is a writer of true conviction and profound talent. He spends page after page proving his worth to you and in return you spend a lot of time being impressed by the gifts he gives you. Have something you’d like to tell me about? Something I should read?

Readers Talkback

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  • Jan. 24, 2008, 7:19 a.m. CST

    Books

    by Buffalo500

    I would like to see more books reviewed on AICN. That's my post for the day.

  • Jan. 24, 2008, 7:23 a.m. CST

    Give me a minute Mori...

    by The Reef

    I'll be done writing my collection soon (300 plus pages - 20 stories off the back of my MA) and will send you a copy when I'm done. How'd that be?

  • Jan. 24, 2008, 8:24 a.m. CST

    Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work

    by Laserhead

    is the best collection of short stories by an American since... I don't know, Flannery O'Connor? It's awesome: mysterious, lyrical, suspenseful, and moving. Everybody should check it out. Jason Brown, Charles D'Ambrosio, Richard Lange and Nic Pizzolatto are the best short story writers in the country, and nobody buys their books.