by Roy Kesey
Published by Dzanc Books
145 pages, 2007
First Horse From the Barn
Reviewed by David Abrams
I love it when a new small press succeeds right from the start. Roy Kesey’s short story collection, All Over, is the first release from Dzanc Books, a new independent press founded by author Steve Gillis and Dan Wickett, who for years has been fervently championing oft-neglected literary fiction at his Emerging Writers Network Web site.
They couldn't have picked a better winner than All Over for their first horse out of the starting gate. In these 19 stories, Kesey takes the reader on a tour of post-modern fiction that is at once bizarre and completely familiar. Here you'll meet a man named Martin who thinks he's a guitar string, honeymooners who are threatened by llamas, a homeless couple who initially thrive during a garbage strike, and two girls who build a castle -- complete with crenellated parapets -- out of the ingredients at a Pizza Hut salad bar.
Each story is out of the ordinary, and yet we can always point to the page and say, "That could be me," or "Dude, he totally snagged my neighbor on that one -- you know, the secretly-gay anesthesiologist who's totally in love with the obstetrician, the one who's completely stuck on himself?" Yes, that guy is here, along with dozens of other offbeat oddballs who, let's face it, are really just shredded pieces of you and me.
All Over opens strongly with the aforementioned honeymooners in a story called "Invunche y voladora." When they wake up in Chile the day after their wedding, both husband and wife realize they remember nothing of the ceremony or the reception that follows. As they ward off marauding llamas, survive a disastrous horseback ride and cast worried glances at the lake where "dark shapes turn and roil and heave beneath the surface," the newlyweds pick through the already-smoldering ruin of their marriage. Kesey's writing is spare and tense, as if Raymond Carver bumped into Ernest Hemingway and "Hills Like White Elephants" decided to marry "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."
Another story, "Scroll," is a sad, searing illustration of how mainstream America has exiled art to the ghetto of neglect. An artist has spent 34 years painting a mural of a mountain range ("minus the boring parts") on a single canvas seven feet high and nine miles long. He spends the entire story trying to find somebody, anybody, who will display his masterpiece which he plans to mount between steel posts 500 yards apart. There, he'll slowly unscroll the painting for viewers who are patient enough to watch the entire seventeen hours of moving canvas. It doesn't go well. In a world of short-attention-span media buzz, no one has time to devote to a painting of this magnitude. These days, Kesey seems to be saying, we take our culture in teaspoon-sized doses.
Many of the stories in All Over are, in fact, no bigger than a teaspoon. Kesey knows how to get in and out of a story quickly, leaving us standing by the side of the road, gasping, and wondering just what the hell just barreled past us. Here, for example, is how one story, "Hat," opens: "He came in through the door, and they gave him a paperclip and told him to make an airplane." Another, "[Exeunt.," begins with: "The birds are catching fire again. I keep shouting up to them, Fly lower, fly lower! They never listen."
There are tales of political conquest, political torture and political buffoonery. There are stories that will break your heart -- "Fontanel" is a beautiful, swirling spiral of fragments and interconnected characters which centers around the birth of a child. There is even a story of grim horror -- "Wait" -- which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who believes that an airport waiting lounge is a thinly-disguised version of Hell.
This is a lot to pack into 145 pages, but Kesey manages to pull it off without breaking a sweat. There is something for everyone here, at least for those who are willing to let fiction take them places they wouldn't ordinarily go.
All Over is not all-over perfect, however. Just like Martin-the-guitar-string, Kesey plucks a couple of off-key notes in the collection. "Calisthenics" is a short-short which could take a lesson from its title -- it lies flabby and listless on the page, but is fortunately over in the blink of an eye. "Follow the Money," the final story in All Over, is more problematic. A self-professed homage to Elmore Leonard, the story wants to be clever by assaulting the reader with more than two dozen characters in the space of ten pages, using nearly every letter of alphabet for names like Lapcharoensap, Xochitl and Ulfarsdottir. The plot is standard noir lifted from the imagination of writers like Leonard, Chandler and Tarantino, making it unfairly challenging to keep everything straight -- though perhaps that was the point. Unfortunately, Kesey sacrifices entertainment in favor of being clever in a writerly way.
Those two stories, however, are the only bad grapes in the bunch. The remainder of All Over is sharp as cheddar and as invigorating as plunging your head into a bucket of ice water. Kesey is on to something great here -- the kind of fiction that bends our minds like paperclips then teaches us how to build airplanes. | October 2007
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.