(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016)
A strip mall and a tornado, quirky products and people bothered by subterranean grievances, interoffice rivalries and politics, a Venn diagram approach to characters and events, and a town that is damned by the presence of the new engines of commerce (virtual reality and cosmetic enhancements through the use of iffy chemical solutions), are hallmarks of this first book by Zachary Tyler Vickers. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his collection of short stories is prefaced with encomiums from George Saunders and two of his other IWW instructors, some of whom praise his “gonzo fiction” (Jodi Russell) that revels “in the collapse of American culture” (Jessica Anthony). “American culture,” as we can see in almost every news story of late, is deteriorating even faster than imagined. Fiction writers have to move fast to keep up with the peculiarities of everyday life.
In the 12 stories of this collection, a good few stand out above the rest for their thematic connections, liveliness, and offbeat content. Naturally, placement of the first story sets the bar and the tone, and in “Disfigured Paper Animals” readers are given a hint as to what will follow. Fat-handed Jimbo, the narrator, works in a carcass-stuffing business and is an ace at sewing and stitching; however, his stubby hands require finger extensions when he goes on a date. A colleague who is blind teaches him origami, which he practices until his ugly death. But he’s not really dead. “My ghost body isn’t a body. From the chest down it’s a series of thick pale threads, like I went halfway through a paper shredder. But my hands are the same knuckled lunkheads.” He floats around, and will do so forever until he knows his “Purpose,” which he finds by making origami of his threaded self to the astonishment and delight of other ghosts. By overcoming his earthbound difficulties, and giving pleasure to others, he can ascend “up up up.” The image of a ghost shooting heavenward with origami figures in its nether parts translates, visually, into an infant’s plaything, adds meaning to the word mobile, while also providing an unexpected and satisfactory conclusion to a seemingly sad life.
The basic blocks of the rest of the collection have been put in place, and the remaining stories examine these features from various angles and add more detail – going back in time occasionally, before the tornado hit – in such excellent stories as “Everything in Relation to Everything Else” (where various characters, each with their own hang-up or morbid view of life, collide), “Tighter, Goodbye,” and, especially, the last story in the collection, “The Cry,” which features the conclusion to a long-running thread, that of the death of a boy who cannon-balled off a high spot into a lake but collided fatally with a boat before entering the water. Ingrid, his cough syrup chugging grandmother, has various cassette tapes with assorted kinds of cries on them, and she searches for the one person, Emily, who can help her know what her grandson felt in his last seconds:
She placed a hand to Emily’s cheek. “Hush now,” Ingrid whispered…. “I have spent the last years of my life wondering why he jumped, why it happened. And though I may not know why he did, why he was happy, at least he was happy. It was an accident.”
There is consolation here for both the boy’s grandmother and for Emily, whose boat he hit and who has been so severely haunted by the tragedy that she hasn’t been able to move forward in life.
Like “Disfigured Paper Animals,” the placement of this story is deliberate. We have spent time in the company of the divorced and/or widowed, those who have lost children and parents, and in one case their limbs, those whose predilections make them feel estranged from others, and those whose school days have marked them forever. In “Elvis the Pelvis” the narrator is rescued, as an adult, from attack by Duda, his high school tormenter:
We listen to the subtle percussion of the rain for a while.
“Listen,” Duda says. “I’ve got an idea. How do you want to be remembered? I’ll remember you that way if you remember me the way I want to be remembered. What do you say? At least it’s a start, right?”
There is a chance for reconciliation here, an interring of bad memories, an opening out instead of a closing down, or a rising up, like Jimbo, instead of the ceaseless torment endured by the ghost of the dead cannon-balling boy.
Balm is often offered to troubled souls, and while it may seem like skirting danger to provide stories with affirming resolutions, that element in Vickers’ writing can be turned around and posed as a question: In these perilous and unstable times, why not embrace a writer who expresses optimism and gives us occasions where the human spirit is uplifted? In “Karst” the lead character, Randy, says: “Since last year, I’ve been to Mount Rushmore and Niagara Falls. I like that I can go back and they’ll be waiting for me.” Currently, the US government is set to give away 640 million acres of land with the concomitant loss of revenue and local jobs, endangering the future of the Grand Canyon and the Arctic, among other places. That returns us to the collapse of American culture. Each writer illustrates, in his and her own way, the world we’ve been inhabiting for some time: branded everywhere, often with ridiculous names (and these stories show a fine eye for, to make an obvious pun, patent absurdities), filled with characters who fail to connect or, miraculously, do, with the uneasy ghosts of those we once knew – the cannon-balling boy is the saddest figure, for me, in the collection – all around. In Congratulations on Your Martyrdom! Zachary Tyler Vickers establishes his premises with confidence and, to use an old-fashioned sounding term, heart. This collection deserves to be read widely.
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Jeff Bursey is the author of Verbatim: A Novel (2010), Mirrors on which dust has fallen (2015), and Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews(July 2016).