by Mike Young
Mike Young’s short stories live in the bizarre corners of our world, just past the surface of what we see in passing, but recognizable all the same. Suburban jocks idolize their washed-up, half-insane coach. Residents of shitty apartments and motel kitchenettes drink, fight and talk about all the great plans they have. Everyone is lonely in their own special way, and everyone likes to think that their voice is unlike anyone else’s. Problem is, several stories in, sometimes those voices bleed together.
And maybe that’s the point — we’re all so different in all the same ways.
Mastadon in a tar pit. Monster truck with a black eye. Nothing Monty could think of got close to how loud he wanted his band. He kept thinking of amps loud enough to rattle sediment. Nu metal that doubled as hydraulic strip mining.
Several stories mention nu metal, which gives them a rather late-90s, stuck-in-geometry-class feel. Either they seem to be set in that time period, or they are populated by characters who wish they were still there — socially structured within the confines of high school. At least then, they knew what to expect, they think.
Beyond recognizable despair, some tales turn surreal. In “Burk’s Nub,” some kids discover that an overweight, sweaty outcast can access the internet through a strange growth on his hand. In the title story, a miniature baby appears in a vacant apartment without explanation.
Those mama birds with the mouth worms — they don’t play that game for runts. But I couldn’t stop standing, wincing at random noises, wanting to quit my thoughts of this stunted thing and wanting to build myself around them, to leave this thing in a church plate but hide that plate from harm.
Every character is in some way torn between what they feel in their gut and what they feel obligated to do, whether through family or romantic relation, or because they are trapped in the way things always are.
Probably my favorite story was “Susan White and the Summer of the Game Show.” In it, a small town is overrun by a mysterious television production. The staff has the entire town fill out questionnaires regarding their skills, saying that they could be featured on a locally-themed show broadcast on the internet. The entire town briefly loses their mind in the anticipation, and it’s an interesting meditation on pride, secrecy and temperament.
Still, I didn’t enjoy every story. Perhaps it was the rushed nature of my reading, but yes, some of the dissatisfied voices blended together. The writing, while punctuated with excellent lines and scenes, occasionally veered too far off into a love of language. I understand wanting to show off one’s expertise in description, but some lines felt overwrought in their specificity.
Wine country slopes by, green and buzz cut vineyards, gobs of lazy hill. Cheri drives. I’m in the seat behind her. The sun’s drifting up. Everything is olive oil, a spilled yawn.
It’s not that I flat out don’t like his style — no, sometimes fragmented thinking suits the story just fine — but the style sometimes came at the expense of clarity. At times, all those details smooshed into one and I had trouble discerning who said what, and where. Again, this could be because of the time frame in which I read the book. All I’m saying is, I didn’t fall in love.
But fair play to Mike Young for being different, for carrying that indie-kid literary bag. His characters don’t sit around and yammer about the intellectual merits of their problems, and they don’t whine. Their problems simply are. Here is the situation now, here is how they deal. Occasionally they may recognize that they’ve made some poor choices, but man, there’s still a glimmer of something new around the corner.
Full disclosure: Word Riot sent me this book. I thank them for including me on their list of book reviewer contacts, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.