absent landlord: the chronicles of a crumbling house by raw spoon (Ross Boone)
In this house, the rent’s not too highBooks Reviews
An illustrator-turned-writer with a funny pseudonym—raw spoon—has something to say…something we need to hear. raw spoon (author Ross Boone, get it?) peoples a falling-down manse with characters who all need something from one another. A presence, if that’s the word, of a mysterious, benevolent absent landlord permeates the story, and spoon scatters clues to the landlord’s identity and existence amongst his pages.
Before the story draws you in, I predict you’ll pick up the book and (spoiler alert!) flip the lower right-hand corner pages with your thumb. You’ll see line drawings of a bearded man turn into a moving cartoon. You may also get pulled in by a back cover that advises:
Let this book sit silently on your shelf until a day comes when you have poured yourself out empty and received nothing in return. Then pick it up and read it quickly.
absent landlord delivers on the promise that the book will fill you up again. You won’t find the spiritual message it contains aggressive to the point of annoyance—it comes through the doorway subtly and predictably at times, comforting and funny at others. Characters swap hilarious, sometimes poignant, dialogue. We like Seth, the main character, but others in the house put us on full alert. We find them very human in their evil, their sloth and their bitterness over past mistakes. Their warts fascinate us most, in fact.
Line drawings bring to mind artwork in books by the late Shel Silverstein, most famous for his illustrated children’s book The Giving Tree. Like Silverstein, raw spoon’s art complements the written story, and he plays joyfully with the text in unexpected places. As in Silverstein, not everything in raw spoon’s story comes pretty.
As mentioned, raw spoon plays joyfully. The book’s first page instructs a reader to the last page to peruse a list of clues as to the landlord’s identity, complete with page references. Readers should, raw spoon suggests, cut the clue list from the book and fold it one of two ways—lengthwise for a bookmark or horizontally for a postcard. (Do not try this on your Kindle!) The author also invites reader interaction with his characters on Facebook … or to send him a message. (Spoiler alert No. 2: I contacted raw spoon via Facebook, and he did reply, quickly confessing he is, in fact, Ross Boone.)
He also rather pointedly on page 5 allows you space to “give” the book to at least four other people. Generosity? Unabashed self-promotion? Decide for yourself.
As Seth, who lives in the house and works in a local grocery store, ponders the mystery of the absent landlord, we gradually draw into his day-to-day concerns and interactions with peers in the falling-down house. No one in the house knows the landlord, his identity a central mystery of the book.
Seth’s co-renters include a lady who trundles around with oxygen tanks strapped by her side; a dog on crack; a girl who texts; a bum who mumbles; a couple that fights; a lady of the evening who cooks food for everyone; and an interloper who invites himself into the house and upsets the balance of things. The life trajectories of these hardscrabble people, a kind of Cannery Row cast set in suburbia instead of Monterey, have brought them to a place where cheap rent counts most. The author treats Seth kindly, like a kid brother who didn’t quite receive full gifts of either intelligence or love.
Characters like these make fiction work as an art form. Seth grows on you slowly—you finally want to take him aside, put your arm around him, explain what’s about to happen. He never quite sees it coming. The reader gets a full view of what it might be like to face life’s challenges with fewer resources … one of the more compelling themes raw spoon explores with his light touch.
Seth, all innocence and childlike understanding, grasps hold of the landlord’s house rules as a means to survive. He finds solace in strictly following these rules even on days when he doesn’t feel like it. The six basic rules, specific to the maintenance of the house and relationships with co-renters, hang on a laundry room wall. (Let’s thank the author here for avoiding the temptation to create 10 rules—too easy to compare them to religious commandments.)
Rules for living at 606 Broadway
1) Respect the landlord
?2) Take care of each other?
3) Keep exterior of house clean and trim?
4) Keep interior of house clean and orderly
?5) Keep storm shelter clean from debris, inside and out
?6) Pay what you can for rent
The storm shelter rule foreshadows a plot twist. (Enough spoilers—I’m not giving this one away.) To his credit, raw spoon twists in other ways too, taking creative risks with the drawings, the visuals of the first few pages and the game-like clues.
Still, one creative risk threatens the work’s integrity—a reader choice (okay, one more spoiler) of two different endings. This reader wanted an author’s voice to compel me to the end, an end he wrote passionately, the only end that could possibly conclude the story. Forcing a choice of endings rarely works. Why leave a reader unsure and unsatisfied?
Stand-up comedian Steve Wright once said “I wrote a few children’s books,” followed by a long pause, “…not on purpose.” raw spoon has done the opposite, writing an adult book full of spiritually mature themes with purpose…and surprises.
raw spoon—or Ross Boone, choose one—donates $1 of each book sold to homeless shelters.
Sybil McLain-Topel is completing an MFA in Writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her essay Lavender No. 19 is scheduled for publication this spring in the literary journal Document.