Short Stories 365/364

“No More Heroes” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015).

This volume will be released in March. I was given an advanced reader copy by the publisher.

First let me say that I can’t believe that yesterday, while talking about “We Only Flinch When It Isn’t Necessary,” I forgot to mention that Blade Runner is on continual play at Lunch Copeland’s house. It’s a great device that allows for comparisons between several of the characters and the film’s “replicants” (“androids” in the novel). I blame the omission on the mass quantities of cold medicine I’ve consumed over the past week and a day, as well as on the (medicine-induced?) insomnia of Wednesday and Thursday nights. Last night I took NyQuil, and it worked as promised. I’d hoped that this morning, having gotten many hours of rest, I would feel better. Before I could finish this post, though, I had to go back for more sleep.

Onward.

Richard is older than any of the protagonists in the previous stories. In his mid-thirties, he nevertheless hasn’t managed to find his professional footing. We’re told he has spent his time “accumulating master’s degrees in sociology and public health, teaching the occasional intro course, still trying to find stability as a researcher without the qualifications of a Ph.D.” That may be, but I have a good friend who remained in school until he was thirty and has been back once since. He’s one of those “most interesting” types Baz Luhrmann references in the commencement address more commonly known as “Wear Sunscreen.” I trust Richard is on that same path.

The story opens with six friends seated around a large table in the bar of a fancy mountain resort, playing a card-based game called Creature Coliseum: Battle Royale. They’re loud and irreverent, and the more conservative touristy-types surrounding them are on the verge of becoming a mob. It’s a great way to grab the reader’s attention while simultaneously painting a portrait of a handful of characters.

We’re told the group is merely warming up for a true RPG campaign later, and that they’ve been gaming together for years. The main character, Richard, tells us:

I was absorbed into this group in high school. Back then I was the anomaly: the lone queer boy with chunky braces and my own library of fantasy novels. Violent beatings and isolation were the tragedies of gay teenagers. That might have been my fate as well if I had not met Oliver. He had a way of collecting people, usually misfits, ostracized kids with nervous ticks and OCD. When he decided to become my friend, I felt pulled by the wrist and instantly indoctrinated.

I mentioned the other day that this was my experience, too, only in reverse. During elementary school I was a wallflower, but in my freshman year of high school I met a group of girls who’d gone to a different grammar school and lived near each other. They’d been friends for years. All three were lesbian. One of the three and I had a common interest in magick; the next thing I knew I was part of their group.

Years later it happened again. I was co-sysop of a BBS called The V.I.N.E. (The Vampire Information Network and Exchange, home of VampNet and the Immortal Coil ‘zine). The man I would eventually marry logged on to the board and then started showing up at the face-to-face meetings we held at a local coffeehouse. When he said he was a roleplay gamer, a group of gay neo-pagans I’d known from before the BBS days, who ran campaigns together, decided the folks from the face-to-face meetings should play Vampire the Masquerade. That game was instrumental in getting Rob and I together.

This story is a study in the effective use of knowledge gaps. The characters believe they know one another but have blind spots galore. In the course of the story they and the reader are handed a roadmap showing where the story is headed, but those blind spots render them unable to see the total picture. It’s a great piece to read multiple times, because you will keep seeing things you missed before.

About that. This project has gone over deadline because I’ve read every story multiple times. I don’t want to simply say I liked something or I didn’t; I want to grok each piece and say why it moved me or failed to do so. Before I got into this game I did not realize (and never would have believed) that people who will read your work and give you feedback are scarcer than hen’s teeth; that you can be published multiple times and still count on one hand the number of people who have read even one of your stories. Friends, family, and co-workers will rejoice each time something you’ve written is accepted for publication in a book or magazine, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to read a single word. As Steve Berman once wrote to me, pretending to voice the internal monologues of such people, “Reading is hard.”

There are great relationships in this story. Richard may not be “well-cemented into adulthood”, but he is empathetic and observant. He, Corey, Neil, and the two Ed Joneses are much more of a team outside the game than they realize, and more typecast in it, too. I’m tempted to say that all the years they’ve spent gaming together taught them the skills they needed for the real life campaign they’re thrown into here. Then I remember they aren’t real.

Nice work.

Short Stories 365/363

“We Only Flinch When It Isn’t Necessary” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015).

This volume will be released in March. I was given an advanced reader copy by the publisher.

On his way to graduate school, Grant pays a visit to the home of his father and stepmother. It isn’t his idea, it was his father’s. Grant’s father is an opinionated, controlling sort, though he’s never up front about it. He plays a passive-aggressive game of quietly articulating how Grant should behave. A high-ranking member of an evangelical church, he makes it clear that his estranged son should dress more conservatively, attend Sunday services with the family, eat dinner with them, and not talk back.

It’s all lip-service to ideals the man preaches but doesn’t practice. Grant is a child of divorce because his father had an affair that resulted in a pregnancy. It broke up two marriages and created a third. Grant’s staying under a roof chock-full of tension. He has a step-sister who feels just as trapped there as he does, and a half-sister who wastes no opportunity to flaunt the fact that she is the only one being raised in an unbroken home, never minding that she’s the product of the two people who created the strife.

In between his battles with them, Grant pays a visit to Lunch Copeland, another member of his father’s right-wing church, which wasn’t nearly as evangelical the last time Grant lived in town, back before his parents’ divorce. His father and Lunch are part of the crew who overthrew the former church leadership and radicalized the congregation.

The reader doesn’t know what to make of this character because Grant, too, seems conflicted. He looked to Lunch as a mentor and surrogate father, but Grant is also gay (or perhaps bisexual), and was dealing with those burgeoning feelings. There are hints that something has gone on between Lunch and the boys he’s mentored, one after another, for years. It’s all hazy, compounded by the fact that they don’t talk openly about anything. All we know for certain is that like Grant’s father, Lunch is duplicitous. He presents one face to the world and another in private.

I like this story very much, but then I’ve always been simultaneously fascinated and horrified by people like Lunch Copeland. (That name, by the way, is perfect, calling to mind Kenneth Copeland, Oral Roberts and their ilk.) I used to rush home from high school, flip on the television, grab the phone, and dial one of my friends. (Yes, someone from the group I made reference to yesterday.) Together we’d watch/mock The PTL Club and its hosts, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. We loved to challenge everything they said, and laugh at the pendulum swings in Tammy Faye’s (alleged) mood. One minute she was all bright smiles, the next she was weeping for the sinners of the world. Six seconds later the smile would be back and she’d be signing some joyful song of praise. It was a trip and a half and we couldn’t fathom that anyone could take it seriously. To us it was obvious that it bore as much resemblance to spirituality as WWE bears to wrestling. We watched it every day. Dare I say we did so “religiously”?

Short Stories 365/362

“Wallflowers” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015).

This volume will be released in March. I was given an advanced reader copy by the publisher.

Perhaps you saw this comment back in review number 136: “I found escape mid-way through my freshman year of high school when I fell in with (read: was saved by) a group made up of stoners, headbangers, and lesbians.”

Until then, I was a wallflower, just like the protagonist of this next story. He’s part of a group connected by their lack of identity. He says of them, “We were wallflowers. Scarred, ugly, odd and untalented, we rarely spoke, never participated. We were all acutely aware that while the adult world mostly ignored us, the young were in the habit of attacking their young.”

Of course he’s wrong about the adult world. Adults attack each other all the damned time, don’t they? They just have different means.

I liked that, just as with the previous story, we have an unreliable narrator, and the piece is an examination of the lies we tell to one another and ourselves about who we are, as we struggle to figure it out. In this case those lies take on a life of their own.

 

Short Stories 365/361

“The Cake is a Lie” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015). Originally published in Chelsea Station (March, 2012).

This collection will be released in March. I was given an advanced reader copy by the publisher.

There’s not much I can say about this one without giving away details you should discover on your own. Let’s just say it involves another man who’s standing on the threshold between unfulfilled twenty-something and accomplished adult. Also if you like experimental fiction you will like this.

Fun fact: The title comes from the video game Portal. Apparently the AI guiding the player character through the levels continually promises cake as a reward for certain actions, but said cake never materializes (and may never have existed).  

Short Stories 365/360

“Nature” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015).

This collection will be released in March. I was given an advanced reader copy by the publisher.

This story is set against the backdrop of the Paradise Ink tattoo parlor. The shop is owned by main character August’s older cousin, Libby. August is a slender twenty-three year old guy with no sense of himself. If this were a visual art he’d be muted, rendered in grays. By contrast Libby is in sharp focus. She’s vivid. Her roommate and business partner Trevor is less defined, but the reader gets a clear picture of the last character in Libby’s sphere, a second rate tattoo artist named Nick.

August is almost catatonic. He seems unable to feel anything or make any sort of decision, so it’s only natural he gravitates toward these other characters, this place. Tattooing and other forms of body modification—Libby, Trevor and Nick have a side business hosting suspension parties—provoke change to raise self-awareness and help an individual find his/her power. Libby even says, “I am finally coming into my own power.” Of course, what a thing is supposed to be isn’t always what it is. A customer leaves the shop with a shamrock tattoo he contemplated for mere minutes, and Nick exerts his power over August, the same way, we’re told, he exerted it over his ex-girlfriend Veronica. He coerces August. But then again, August wants to be led.

Once again, lots to think about.

Short Stories 365/359

“Repossession” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015).

This collection will be released in March. I received an advanced reader copy from the publisher.

I didn’t realize, exactly one hundred reviews ago, when I looked at one of the stories in this collection as part of another one, that the author had a definitive style. I knew that his insights into the human condition struck a chord; I knew that I very much enjoyed reading his story. I thought, though, that what he’d written had to be a fraction of a larger work. Having now read eight more of his stories, I see it’s just how he works.

Works for me.

Randal hasn’t managed to turn any of the connections he’s made in New York into anything resembling a career, and he’s twenty-seven; his days of being seen as young and full of promise are numbered. His modus operandi thus far has been to return to Fayetteville and his older brother Tom’s couch whenever the money runs out. He works as a repo man for awhile, saving up the cash he needs to fund his continued search for himself. But this time when he returns home he gets a nasty surprise: his brother has a girlfriend and a baby on the way. Tom’s transitioning to another phase of adult life, one that can no longer accommodate his fledgling brother. Randal finds himself being shoved from the nest.

There are some great characters in this story. I especially liked Winston, the aging hippie/repo man. As you might imagine, he’s deeply conflicted. I also liked the salty, mysterious, one-eyed girlfriend, Amber. My inclination is to say I want more of this story; I want to know what happens next. But that’s not the way this author works. These are stories that open up little spaces in your soul, unsettle you, and make you ponder them for hours, or even days. It’s really very nice.

Short Stories 365/358

“Troll on a Mountain with a Girl” by Steve Berman from Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories (Lethe Press, 2008).

The next story in the collection is “Kinder”. I reviewed it as part of Best Gay Stories 2009. See Short Stories 365/150.

I enjoyed this story about a man whose greatest fear seems to be that he will become the fellow at the center of W. H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”. Surely you know that poem? It begins:

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint

An accountant, Owen’s not straight but he is straight-laced. Frugal and overly cautious. Following his parents’ divorce his father evaporated from his life and his mother became his best and only friend. He had no siblings. When she dies he’s left alone, miserable to the point of being suicidal.

Fate intervenes. Mourning his mother, he’s inspired to check out a book about monsters, because she passed her love of classic horror films on to him. He’s struck by the wild notion to go in search of the mythic creatures, find one, and meet his demise ala an old film. What happens when he cashes in his 401k and begins living every day as if it is his last? Why, he starts really living, that’s what.

I enjoyed this oddly-uplifting little story. I especially liked the hopeful way it ended. And speaking of endings:

Was he free? Was he happy?

Good lord I hope so.