EVERY DAY OUR MODEST LITERARY community becomes a little stronger with the efforts of our local publishers, writers, bloggers, and reviewers. This Saturday, Michael Schaub of Bookslut and Kevin Sampsell of Future Tense Books will host a reading featuring two small press authors: Mike Young, author of Look! Look! Feathers, a surreal collection of short stories from Word Riot Press, and Jamie Iredell, author of The Book of Freaks, recently published by Future Tense. Both authors hail from afar, and operate on small-press budgets, which very well might be no budget at all, making this reading a rare opportunity to enjoy authors of the Southern and New England variety.
The Book of Freaks is slim, though it could easily have expanded to fill 1,000 pages. Kevin Sampsell first heard Iredell read selections of his work in Seattle. "It was funny and strange and full of misleading information, like a fucked-up Wikipedia page or something. I was smitten and pretty much ready to publish the damn thing before he was done reading," Sampsell says. The book catalogs and defines snippets of our culture, from traditional circus-style "freaks"—like conjoined twins—to more controversial selections such as guitarists or people from Denver. Along with each entry comes a definition or description, some straightforward, some single sentences, some prose poems or short stories, but all baffling, hilarious, and irreverent.
The subjects are arranged alphabetically, and self-consciously so. The acknowledgement that opens the book is under "Acknowledgement," while the dedication appears later, under the D's. But the ABCs are subterfuge; the topics flow as if the reader were on a waterslide through the synapses of the author's head. And while Iredell can be cruel in the handling of his subjects, many of the entries are stunning and beautiful. As a catalog of the bizarre and familiar, it succeeded in making me feel very weird.
Mike Young's Look! Look! Feathers is in a more traditional narrative vein, but only as far as that its contents are recognizable as short stories. The collection displays a brash love of language on the part of the author. Strong voices of rural and suburban yahoos take on a wild poetry of their own. Even as the removed narrator Young dives into the vulgar, and the poetic.
The collection falls somewhere on the short-story map between Barry Hannah and Donald Ray Pollock. Young tackles familiar conflicts with modern, creative, and unique contexts. In one striking story, a group of high school boys are shocked to discover their revered gym coach has only one testicle. Upon receiving this striking news, we get this passage, "What's funny about a shit-eating grin is that the grinner's not the eater or he wouldn't be so chipper. So the shit scarfer must be the one getting grinned at." This is typical of the playful, spastic, lowbrow prose that brings these characters to life and allows us to feel for them, but keeps us just far enough away to enjoy them. If Young's writing has one flaw, it's that he sometimes obscures the plot within the wildness of his prose—but his language is a fun place to be lost.
Young and Iredell's readings, sponsored by the joint literary powerhouses of Future Tense and Bookslut, promises to be an offbeat, livelier-than-usual night of readings—a promise that free beer from Ninkasi will certainly help to fulfill.