Slow Monkeys and Other Stories
by Jim Nichols
Published by Carnegie Mellon University Press
164 pages, 2002
Top Banana in the Book Jungle
Reviewed by David Abrams
Last year, there were about 150,000 new books published. Of those, more than 17,000 were adult fiction titles.
Last year, I read about 35 volumes of new fiction -- about one-millionth of a drop in the bucket. I'm a fairly average reader -- I read at a medium pace and do my best to keep up with the tidal wave of pulp and ink. But when I think of all those other 16,965 unread and unnoticed works of fiction, I get downright depressed thinking about all the great books which got lost in the shuffle.
Jim Nichols' outstanding Slow Monkeys and Other Stories is one such book published in 2002 which got crowded and nudged aside on your local bookstore shelf. If, indeed, it even made it as far as your favorite book retailer.
What a shame. A dirty, lowdown, rotten shame.
Slow Monkeys is the kind of book that makes me wish I had the omnipotency of a benevolent God, where with one sweep of my fingers I could convince several hundred thousand readers they must read this collection of gutsy, gritty fiction (instead of the several hundred who might have been lucky enough to find the slim paperback released by Carnegie Mellon University Press back in November). Then again, if I were God, there'd be no such thing as mid-list authors or cancer or lime Lifesavers or those annoying security seal tapes on CDs.
Jim Nichols and his characters know all about grim things like leukemia and lime Lifesavers. The people in Slow Monkeys inhabit a world of hard reality -- the losers, loners and loafers you might find in trailer parks, soup kitchens, lighthouses or caves (as in the story "Jade"). But the people in Nichols' stories -- most of them set in Maine -- aren't just bums and dregs, they're characters the author invests with compassion, even love. Nichols loves his page-people and by the end of Slow Monkeys you will, too.
Take Joey Cloutier, for instance. The star quarterback in high school, Joey blew out his knee during summer practice for his college team. Now he's back in his small Maine hometown, limping around and trying to fight off the feeling that he's destined to end up in the shoe factory just like his old man. Throughout "C'est La Vie," Joey wrestles with what might have been and what should have been and what undoubtedly will be. He spends his time at the factory thinking about the glorious day of the high school state championships when everyone took the trip north to watch the game.
We had a caravan of townies following our bus. The cheerleaders rode with us and chanted the whole way. Debbie Wilkinson sat in my lap and kissed me and the coaches just laughed about it. I remember the thick feel of her sweater. All the townies were drinking beer in their pickups and by the time we got to Presque Isle half of them were shitfaced, and during the game there were fights in the stands. The next night, back in town, there was a parade down Main Street under the elms with me in the high seat on the lead firetruck. There were guys from the shop all along the street cheering, some of them with black eyes, the same guys I was working with now.
You can taste the regret in this book like it was last night's sixth beer (you know, the one past the one too many).
Or, listen to the down-and-out blueberry raker living in a trailer park in "Magic" (arguably the best story in the collection) who opens with this assessment of his increasingly grim life:
The last time I was in jail, the Sheriff suggested that if I were to jump off the Bucksport Bridge, it would save us both a lot of future trouble. And I tell you, it was starting to sound like a good idea. I even walked out the trestle a few times and looked down into the gorge. I dropped rocks over the side. It took about four seconds for the rocks to fall, and I remembered from physics class that it would be the same for me, despite the difference in mass.
"Magic" ends a dozen pages later with a sort-of epiphany:
It was a nice morning. I didn't feel all that bad for a sorry son of a bitch with a hangover who'd been a jail exhibit for schoolboys.
Other characters in the collection include a husband teetering on the edge of adultery with a woman he just met at a writing workshop, a Vietnam vet who finds his soulmate living in a cave, the faded host of a children's television show dying of lung cancer while living out his days at a Salvation Army shelter, and so on. There are very few pretty people here. But then, when was the last time you walked down the street and were struck by the vast number of pretty people around you? Jim Nichols writes about the sweat-drenched, beard-stubbled, stinking mob of humanity. And that's what I love about these stories. It's not often you come across fiction that's this brutally honest. Even with 150,000 books printed in any given year, the odds are pretty slim.
There is brutality, but there is also plenty of beauty. Most of the time, the two are inextricably tangled together. For instance, "Jade" begins with a hunter traipsing through the woods and flashing back to the moment when his buddies were killed in Vietnam:
Johnny Lavers spun and dropped. Johnny's jade bracelet -- stolen from a gook princess, he'd said -- slipped out from under his shirtsleeve, a beautiful green against the dirt. Then Curtis Haines, wonder in his eyes, rolled sideways and released a trickle of crimson onto the dust at the foot of the sandbags. Finally, Fattie Hansen keeled over and, settling, let loose a long, windy flatulence, as if his soul were taking that method of escape.
Now I ask you, when was the last time a writer was able to get such splendor from a soul trapped in a fart?
Nichols writes with a shaved-down simplicity which is unadorned but certainly never empty. There's always something going on behind each sentence, a slow build of emotion so that, by story's end, you know there's a lot more to these lives than what you see on the page.
Some of the stories end abruptly and you think, "Wait a minute. That's it?" But give Nichols' fiction an hour, or a day, to sink in and you'll find those last sentences aren't just sheared-off mid-epiphany. Nichols has subtly given us clues to what happens to his losers and dreamers after the last period. These stories resonate with the haunting quality of a loon-call drifting across a lake. One can only hope that Slow Monkeys, one of the best overlooked books of 2002, will have that same kind of staying power on the bookstore shelf. Do yourself a favor: hack your way through the jungle of 17,000 books and find Slow Monkeys -- this is the one you should be reading. | June 2003
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.