Alternately bizarre, poignant, and unsettlingly funny, William Walsh’s Ampersand, Mass.—the titular town situated somewhere between Winesburg, Ohio and Yoknapatawpha County—brings Donald Barthelme’s darkly comedic compressions to mind. These fragmentary, non sequitur-filled stories, peopled by ne’er-do-wells, nincompoops, and priapic not-quite-post-adolescents, circumvent expectations, the seemingly desultory images and events actually carefully sutured together to evoke the sadness, anomie, rebellion, boredom, apathy, and, yes, even heart and kindness that you might find within a small-town in these altered and dissociated states of America. Marked by concision and precision, a commanding use of narrative ellipsis, and humor and utter strangeness, these stories, moving between strange and funny and sad, sometimes in the same story, sometimes in the same paragraph, might just cut you up, in both senses of the phrase.
What you will find in Edward Mullany’s I Falter at the Gallows: inventorying as a means of criticizing silly consumerisms; arguments for and against narrative poetry; stuff about dogs; an overripe banana speaking; a tennis ball awaking; a laughing television saying “the devil / is real”; stuff about beards and bearded men; puzzling dialogues with C. S. Lewis, Søren Kierkegaard, Sinéad and Flannery O’Connor, Rick Moody, Leo Tolstoy, and the biblical Daniel; elegies for suicides; poems to members of married couples and other solitaries. Evoking great meditative poets, like Kat Bryan and Jack Gilbert, but also the complex simplicities of Bashō, Shiki, and Issa, I Falter at the Gallows is a text where a contemplative brevity betrays a mournful complexity, crystallized by an ambiguous, but no less evocative, Christology. Like Stephen Dedalus’s conception of the artist in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Mullany “remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible,” while paring existences through each refined line. There is so much sadness and violence in these poems, and some hope, albeit a hope measured in coffee spoons.
Joseph Riippi’s The Orange Suitcase is a case study of a man trying to make sense out of what doesn’t make any sense, all the while registering his ideas and sensations in series of wistful, conversational fragments, featuring a flesh-covered three-inch nail, a wine-drenched copy of Salinger’s Nine Stories, and other necessary objects. Opening this suitcase, you’ll find evocative, splintered somethings about some things and other things, and about someone’s others, significant and otherwise. Favorite line: “It didn’t take long before we realized we brought out the worst in each other.”
Matt Bell’s How They Were Found uses the phantasmatic, the metaphorizing of the mundane, the intractability of history, personal and otherwise, to probe the concerns of a seemingly post-everything age, where everything happens in the interstices, of time, of space. A number of writers come to mind when I read these stories. There’s Jesse Ball’s sense of the uncanny and unexplained mystery; there’s Brian Evenson’s scorched earth, post-apocalyptic mania; there’s late Cormac McCarthy’s slash-and-burn sentences; and Eugene Marten’s brusque musculatures; there’s Robert Coover and Angela Carter’s evocative re- and deconstructions of fairy tales. My favorite stories turned out to be stories I’d read before in other venues or publications: “The Cartographer’s Girl,” “Her Ennead,” “Dredge,” and “The Collectors.” Creepy murder mystery, fairy tale deconstruction, historical fiction reconstruction, post-apocalyptic paranoia, interstitial fabulations, cinematic structurings, indexing of a tragedy: they’re all in here. Seven sections of Matt Bell’s “The Collectors” are devoted to inventorying the stockpiles of Herman and Langley Collyer, the infamous eccentric hermit packrats. Bell uses the list as a device for cataloguing fear, despair, detachment, pride, loneliness, and as a kind of anthropological study. He writes: “I came in through the inventory of your home, through the listing of objects written down as if they meant something, as if they were clues to who you were.” We find one character here taking “inventory in his mind, counting piles of newspapers, broken furnishings, books molded to floorboards.” This is only a glimpse of the wild piles of stuff that these deeply disturbed brothers accumulated over the course of their lifetimes. Talk about baggage! Bell has created an indelible work that might just get you to throw some stuff away. “What I learned is that even a book can be a door if you hold it right,” says one of Bell’s narrators, and if you hold How They Were Found right, you will have a door, a door of immaculate perception, a door into elsewhere and whatever is next door to it. It’s a fine debut collection demonstrating the author’s versatility, especially with regard to form and content, realized by a measured, strapping prose style.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.