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Books  |  Reviews

Dirtyville Rhapsodies by Josh Green

Send in the clown

May 21, 2013  |  4:04pm
<i>Dirtyville Rhapsodies</i> by Josh Green

What accounts for the mini-Renaissance of the short story we see nowadays? Already this year, terrific collections by Karen Russell and George Saunders, among others, have revived flagging spirits and sales at bookstores. Online sales keep fiber optics, twisted pairs and airwaves warm and glowing.

Some pundits (and deplorers) attribute the rise of the short story to the diminishing attention span of the average reader. A theory holds that as we habituate our brains to read in 15-second bursts—emails, tweets, etc.—the cortex changes its plasticity so that it instinctively responds to short reads and grows less able … or willing … to handle with longer ones. Short stories satisfy the attention-deficit syndrome that’s a byproduct of life in the 21st century.

Maybe.

Evidence exists to the contrary. We see in recent years a resurgence, in fact, of long-form nonfiction features. Pamela Colloff’s lengthy stories in Texas Monthly, for example, must sometimes be broken up and published in multiple issues—serialized, as it were. These brilliant, doggedly factual, exhaustive accounts of innocent people convicted of crimes not only entertain and educate … they help get people out of prisons and right old wrongs and change bumfuzzled systems.

We also recently have asteroid-sized novels landing among us. Books by Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody and more defy the trend toward miniaturization. Too, if the mind really, truly craved a crumb-and-morsel read, why wouldn’t sales of poetry volumes be through the roof? (Apart, I mean, from the fact that too many works of poetry arrive straight from the gazed-upon navels of their creators, solipsistic and impenetrable save to the MFA workshops?)

The revived short story form certainly comes at a welcome hour, whatever. My own guess is that new interest in the form has a great deal to do with the high quality of the stories coming out these days. Imagine—short stories written well enough, with invention and energy and piercing observation, attract more readers. It’s a concept.

This brings us to Josh Green’s solid collection.

The slightly disturbing cover of Dirtyville Rhapsodies nicely captures the tone of its 18 stories—set before an Atlanta skyline, we find a merry circus clown with a pistol, a jaunty symbol of the comedic/tragic mix simmering under the book’s blood-red cover.

Green, an Indiana native now living in Atlanta, broke most of these stories into print in smart little journals and periodicals, those victory flagstones along the path of young writers as they beaver away at their craft. Think Los Angeles Review, The MacGuffin, The Adirondack Review, New South. Green’s full volume earned a finalist designation for the 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award.

The author slips in and out of multiple personalities to sketch, at various points, a narcissist gym-rat, a young couple on a troubled honeymoon in the tropics, a cadre of homeless bon vivants, a high-roller in career crisis, and so on. The writer moves fluidly among voices, among economic strata, in and out of genders and ages. Green’s a talented writer with a great eye and ear. He crafts lovely sentences, like these from “Twenty-First Century Itch”:

On the day my wife died I found myself in a Texas-style barbeque joint, dizzy on mojitos. I’d seen better days. Like those days for instance when the walls of a sorry beaten restaurant didn’t bleed with my own misery. An old bluesman was onstage, coaxing crazy sorrow from a weathered Stratocaster. He sang about the sad train and how it comes hard down the midnight line. His voice was a rusty blunted knife, his black throat a piston of bad news…

And this from “The Delusional Mister Necessary”:

It’s right about 8:20 now in the p.m. and primetime for the Spandex rush. It occurs to me nightly that Spandex is a gift from Jesus sent down to middle-aged Midwestern males, a species that includes me. The ladies all look so gifted in Spandex, so properly buttressed. The joy of Spandex holds me over through these winter months until I get the swimsuits at Memorial Public Pool. The red-suited lifeguards in particular. In one-pieces they swim on pool breaks like seals. Their hair, usually blond, is milky in the water, their bodies like limber traces of a dream. They pop up for air and chirp about college next year. Hot money I love July.
Spandex on me would be too boastful. On any other man downright flagrant. I prefer gray sweatsuits with high-powered elastic at the ankles. So tastefully accentuating, so perfect for jumping jacks. Nothing says watch-me-perspire like the wetted Rorschach blots that seep out the back of gray sweats. The attire makes its own remarks so that I seldom have to. Bob Necessary doesn’t say what’s on his mind. He lets the sweat speak for itself. And tonight I’m on a roll.

One story stunned me, left me troubled for days. Come to think of it, the short work still clings to my—here’s that word again—cortex like a black parasite.

“The Abduction” springs loose the nightmare that every parent tries to keep locked in the basement of possibility, but still hears shuffling around, menacing, too many times in a day. A young mom out shopping briefly gives her attention to an in-store announcement about the zucchini specials on Aisle 6. When she turns back to her shopping cart … her child is no longer in it.

Forget any clown with a pistol—this story guts you with a rusty knife. It put me in mind of the late William Gay’s sinister masterpiece, “The Paperhanger.” Good luck getting this one out of your thoughts.

Hey, it’s only a few pages long too. In case you need it that way.

My one general criticism here (hypocritically) concerns the number of stories in the collection. Eighteen feels like too many, especially when the impact and virtuosity of an especially powerful story gets benumbed, not heightened, by its neighbor. At, say, nine stories, we may not have Salinger, at least not yet, but we would certainly have had a Green at his best, rather than Green at his most.

Whatever. My takeaway—read this book. Follow Josh Green. Dirtyville Rhapsodies belongs on the bookshelf with any other collection published in recent years.

Charles McNair has been Books Editor for Paste since 2005. His novel, Pickett’s Charge, publishes August 31.

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