Untouchable

book by Scott O’Connor

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I was hoping for a book in which to lose myself. I’d been doing too much research for the book I’m working on and not enough reading. Fortunately, before a weekend at the beach, UNTOUCHABLE by Scott O’Connor came in the door. I was immediately drawn into our two main characters, Darby, who works for a cleaning service that cleans up after murder/suicide/death scenes and his son, Whitley, known as The Kid, who has taken a vow of silence despite his penchant for talk shows.

O’Connor paints a very vivid LA, as our story takes place on the edge of Echo Park just off Sunset and at the Everclean cleaning service in a lost corner of Glendale overlooking the river–a corner I happen to know well. The writer gives us details of streets, textures, colors and things to look at without bogging us down in geographical details—there’s no “at the corner of this and that, where the metro stop is.” It’s a case for letting your reader get into a physical space, rather than worrying about the geography. The writer knows exactly where his characters are, but it’s subtly portrayed. Through the Kid’s eyes, O’Connor gives us his neighborhood, including a massive mural in an underpass, which is being continuously covered by graffiti—the kid tries to capture it in a drawing before it’s completely obscured.

O’Connor reminds us that every intimate corner of any city has character, even the bleakest ones. There is as much for a reader to experience with the senses on a bleak street corner with a rundown bus stop as there is in a plush forest ridden with wildlife. The Darbys’ chipped cement front porch and barred windows with their ever present pickup truck out front are an indelible backdrop for narrative. The trick is to pay attention to the details, no matter where you are.

O’Connor also manages to use physical landscape as metaphor, from the dog who was stuck in the sewers beneath the Darby’s street for days (who comes out as damaged as the topdwellers,) to the closet where Darby’s associate loses his mind from going to his cleanup job alone. Every nuance of place is utilized and described to its full extent–an apartment above a Chinese restaurant, a hotel room where the suicide victim thoughtfully lay out plastic first, Darby’s garage where their life is cartoned off and secrets are hidden in drawers behind boxes. Even a blank spot on a bulletin board above Darby’s wife’s tiny desk becomes a force to be reckoned with.

The Kid and Darby have pretty wretched lives when we meet them—the Kid is routinely beaten up at school and is mentally abused by the school guidance counselor who seems to think the problem lies with him. He leads a perilous game of survival and he plots several different ways home from school to avoid his tormentors.  He holds a hope that the story of his mother’s death is untrue, that she has run away.  The Kid had a life ambition of becoming a talk show host, so he gives up the one thing he treasures most in an exchange with God–he won’t speak until his mom comes back.  In the Kid’s shoes, told in close third person, we are given an unreliable point of view—a boy whose very trauma has messed with his line of thinking. And his twisted line of thinking is what keeps the reader on precarious, but fascinating ground.  The mere unpredictability in his actions kept me turning pages. What will he do next?

Darby, the kid’s father is dealing with the loss of his wife by sleeping in the truck out front of the house and is has a growing unease with his job cleaning up after crime scenes. His point of view is also unreliable as we sense that he is coming unhinged. Darby fights off a “speck” in his throat, which at first appears only at a moment when he photographs the cleaned up crime scene, then later throughout. O’Connor weaves a careful narrative through Darby’s mind, and we descend into madness with him. But with physical details and Darby’s particular obsessiveness, we are never lost in his madness—we always know where we are, each terrifying step of the way. In both of these characters, we are fully immersed in their points of view, which are so particular and breathtakingly human, it is a difficult book to put down.

Both Darby and the Kid are tremendously likeable, from Darby’s nightly fried fish dinners with his boss, Bob, to his memories of and love for his wife and the sheer range of emotions he goes through every day he shows up on the job. The Kid has a fantasy talk show he can no longer perform due to his covenant, a motley pair of friends who change his life in unexpected ways, and an ability to find true beauty and meaning in the unlikeliest of places. A burned out house becomes a magical place that affects his life profoundly.

O’Connor finds a deep beauty in the every day and in bleakness itself through the eyes of his characters. Darby’s adoption of a hopelessly ill dog who is covered in sores and won’t let anyone near it ends up being one of the most life-changing actions of the books. The result is a heartbreaking very human beauty.

I’ve lived in LA for over twenty years and I set my first book in New York, my second book in present day Baltimore and 1930s Los Angeles, but this next one I’m working on has finally landed at home in present day LA. Scott O’Connor has made me more aware of every detail in the everyday, and how creating a psychic landscape can function on many deeper levels than just putting characters in a place. While this read was very useful to me as a writer, as a reader, I have to say it was one of the loveliest, absorbing and most moving books I’ve read in a while.

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Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day


book by Ben Loory

annotation by Lee Stoops

 

“The knife flies cleanly through the air – and lands perfectly in the center of the friend’s stomach.”

~  “The Knife Act” from Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (122)

A pocket full of fun stories. They’re like popcorn in the way they can be read handfuls at a time, but they don’t melt away, calorie free. Ben Loory’s stories, though fables might be a better word, are fast, deep-reaching experiments in touching on the simple darkness that exists around the root of human imagination. The fun he has on the page translates to a reading experience that’s addicting, engaging, enlightening, and liberating. As a writer, I couldn’t put the book down. Each time one of his short stories ended, I turned immediately to the next to keep the buzz going. When I finished the book, I actually thought about flipping back to the beginning and reading it again. Not so much because of how much fun it was to just let go and allow the stories to bubble inside my mind, but because I wanted to read closer – to study Loory’s craft, to see how exactly he did it. It’s a mix of rule-breaking, fear-inviting, and fat-cutting.

First off, and getting right to the point – Loory breaks all the rules of contemporary crafting. He skips naming most of his characters, he leaves nearly everything setting-wise to the imagination, he even drops a lot of pretense, punctuation, and grammar. Now, it needs to be clear that he’s neither ignorant of the rules nor missing them. He’s breaking them. And I think his intention here is clear: he’s interested in getting to the heart of the story. He’s taking the whole convoluted process of literary fiction and carving it back to the place where simple story begets meaning. Like the story told around a campfire or in a darkened cabin full of bunks. His language is short and choppy and he doesn’t rely on long words or thesaurus-sourced modifiers. He lets adverbs do some of the heavy lifting, which pisses me off because he makes it work. He cuts to the bone (more on this in a bit) and lets the absolute action do the work.

He does rely, it should be noted, on limited third person POV, surrealism/magical realism, and fable style prose. The stories are mostly contemporized dark fairy tales. Which, for the content, is a wise decision. The sparseness in the prose and in the characters leaves so much room for the reader to inhabit and create meaning.

The girl, in the meantime, hasn’t seen much of the boy. He hasn’t been calling her back. He hasn’t been coming to pick her up from work.

In fact, she hasn’t seen him at all.

And so she walks home, all by herself, late at night through the streets of the town. And she stands staring into the dark window of the travel agency, looking at the posters on the walls.

Rome. Paris. New York City. The pyramids. Ayers Rock.

So many wonderful places to be.

And look at where she is (72, “UFO: A Love Story”).

The moose turns and looks at him in horror.

You’re trying to kill me, he says, his voice a whisper. You brought me here to kill me!

What? says the man. Why would I do that? I don’t understand.

But the moose is too scared to explain. He stumbles backward to his feet. He points a hoof at the abomination on the wall.

The man sees it. Then his eyes go wide.

My God! he says. I just didn’t think!

He reaches out to reassure the moose.

But his hand grabs the T-shirt and it rips and falls off, and then, to make matters worse, the moose’s hat tumbles to the floor.

Everybody turns.

A moose! they cry. Get him! Get him! Get the guns! (150, “The Man and the Moose”)

Within Loory’s use of surrealism and magical realism is what I believe to be the most important aspect of his short stories: fear. He makes no bones about plying readers with their deep fears. He invites the fear. Aliens, death, loss, impossibility, misunderstanding, monsters, the undead, wild animals, weapons, the unknown, legends, and the list goes on. But, it’s not a matter of scaring the readers. No, Loory takes the fears and makes them ridiculous without ridiculing their reason. In this way, he’s using dark humor in a new (kind of) way, and giving readers something to think about. A real achievement – using the irrational in an absurd way to create rational responses.

It is a tremendous thing, the monster below – so big the man missed it before. It is jet-black and featureless and lying stretched out, covering the entire bottom of the (swimming) pool.

And the worst thing is that it is staring at the man – staring right back up at him. Staring with that black, unblinking eye (10-11, “The Swimming Pool”).

A hunter returns to his village one night with a severed human head in one hand. He jams the head onto a stake and sticks it into the ground by his hut.

Then he goes inside and falls asleep. (41, “The Hunter’s Head”)

The boy and the girl strain and pull and pull. And when the last few yards come in, they see why pulling had become so hard – there’s an immense, canvas-wrapped objected tied to the end.

What is it? the girl says.

I don’t know, says the boy.

The two move closer to the object. The boy bends down and unties the knotted rope. Then he peels back the canvas.

Oh God, says the girl.

The boy stares down.

Inside are two dead bodies. (118, “The Rope and the Sea”)

The woman wanders down the passageway.

This is more like it, she says.

The passageway is narrow and very dark. The woman turns on the flashlight.

There are spiderwebs all over the place, and it is eerily quiet. The woman’s heels make a clicking sound.

I wonder where this goes, she says.

Just then the passageway takes another turn.

Oh, says the woman, stopping short.

In front of her is a wall.

The passageway has come to an end. (182, “The Woman and the Basement”)

Coming back to the sparseness of Loory’s stories. Some might identify his prose as minimalistic. It is certainly economic. I’m not sure I’d call it minimalism, though. Minimalism is an approach – a very specific style intended to give the reader maximum room to breathe while inhabiting a piece. Minimalism purposely leaves much unsaid for the sake of experiential opportunity. Loory’s not leaving things unsaid for that purpose, and in most cases, he’s not leaving things unsaid. I’d label what Loory’s done as a trimming of fat. Really, almost a complete removal of fat, and in places, tissue. It’s not about minimal presentation, it’s about getting rid of everything that doesn’t matter for the sake of the story experience. Like people, stories often grow best under layers of fatty tissue and skin. The more fat, the slower the movement happens, even if it warms (more importantly here, protects) the body. Loory’s stories are skeletal. We can see everything when we read them – like looking at a tree without its leaves. The look alone is creepy, other-worldly, alien while still the root of something else. Loory’s done this so that the readers might be the bodies that grow around his stories. But, like skeletal things, there are pockets of shadow and points of mystery.

Two boys are walking home from school when one of them sees a drainpipe set back in the woods.

Look at that, the boy says. I never knew that was there. Let’s go in and see where it goes.

But the other boy takes one look at the pipe and quickly shakes his head.

Uh-huh, he says. Not me. No way.

Why not? says the first boy. Are you scared?

I just don’t want to, his friend says, and takes a single step back.

Come on, says the first boy. It’s just a pipe.

But the other boy won’t be swayed.

I’ll see you later, he says.

And then turns around and runs.

The first boy watches as his friend disappears, and then he turns again to the pipe. Its open mouth is very dark, and very, very wide. (13, “The Tunnel”)

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Loory’s collection of short stories was the way it made me want to try things in my writing. I want to blend the fable style with social commentary because Loory’s demonstrated how it can still be effective in contemporary fiction. I want to give skin to my characters’ (and my readers’) fears in a way that changes minds and infects the imagination. I want to cut the fat, to get to the point, to stop worrying about who will worry about the details, to start asking and answering (or, sometimes not answering) questions. The culture of modern literary fiction is one of abundance, of dedicated attention to detail and style and richness. Not that Loory doesn’t go after those things, but he does it his way, and it makes for something fresh and refreshing. And it, by way of example, gives permission to writers: break some rules, face some fears, cut some fat. Write something fun.