Here's the set of contradictions you're going to have to swallow for this review: If someone handed me this chapbook, Don't Take Your Life, and told me it was the new Philip Roth (or Alice Munro or whoever), I'd be like, "Holy shit. What happened? This is terrible." But if I received the same book and was told the truth—that it was written by a guy here in Portland who's years younger than me and sings in a quite decent SST-throwback punk band (the Clorox Girls), my response would be as follows:
Whoa—this book's pretty fucking good! True, there are a few flat notes and sour spots, but for the most part, Justin Maurer has a real gift for storytelling—especially for writing dialogue and trimming away fluff to get to the core of his stories.
Told in autobiographical vignettes, DTYL opens with Maurer at age five in Arizona, beckoning a stray, "Commere doggie doggie." Maurer's dad screams and chases the dog away, telling his son, "That was a coyote and he was going to eat you." Was he telling the truth, or just lying to whitewash his dickishness? How would Maurer know? He was only five years old.
One vignette after another propels us through Maurer's life—from his childhood role as sign language interpreter for his deaf mother, to being drugged by a fat rug merchant in Istanbul, to living in a van behind a casino in Oakland, to falling in love with a girl whom he's able to make you fall in love with, too.
Maurer hasn't written a memoir, though. There's no central arch, and the book doesn't end with him getting a publishing deal. He's interested in the stories that he's accumulated along the way, and many of these bite-sized remembrances have an expertly conversational feel. The difference between telling a story about doing Michael Jackson impressions for Turkish youth and writing the same story is huge, though—and Maurer mostly pulls it off. A few sentences are real clunkers (but not many) and a little more editorial focus could have helped things out. But for the most part, this guy's good, and will certainly continue to grow tighter and sharper. Not too bad for a young punk.