(Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, 2016)
It’s not every book of short stories that feels like a book of poetry. Equally, it’s not every book that reads like a film. Enter John Domini’s Movieola!, a slim collection for those who love stories, whatever their medium. An ode to the Tinseltown Industrial Complex, this isn’t your stuffy close-cropped script, nor is it your traditional book of short prose. Here, rules are broken, and if you aren’t careful you just might find the plotline shift beneath your feet halfway through the page.
That’s because Domini’s short stories don’t like to stick to the script; they may be all about plot, but the experimental fluidity of Domini’s approach doesn’t let you take anything for granted. In fact, he takes great enjoyment in rearranging details. (Warning: if you’re a literalist, this book probably isn’t for you). Radically different in approach, each story shares a sort of gravel-mouthed, slick-tongued charm. And Domini is convincing. It’s a rare author who shares the experience of discovering a story along with the reader. Come across a plot hole or inconvenient detail? Forget it and move on! That’s what rewrites are for. And what exactly is left when author of a plot-driven piece won’t play by the rules? Character, and lots of it.
One constant that is encountered in Domini’s work is the nameless, faceless narrator. His words evoke the fast-talking Hollywood producer-type who is most interested in finding the perfect camera angle to manipulate emotions, plotlines be damned. It’s a worldview part vintage, golden age / silver screen milieu with an eye for the sublime, mixed with jaded sellout exec peddling the same big box, cut-and-paste, heart-wrenching tear-jerker. That’s not to say there’s anything unoriginal about it. Domini has a compelling vision… and what that is exactly is anyone’s guess.
Make no mistake: passive readers need not apply. That’s because Domini has saved the lead role for you. Yes, you. Part writer, part actor, it’s time to take the stage and take a bow. More importantly, it’s time to live up to those ideas. After all, the storyboard is waiting. Well, maybe those ideas are tired and you’re a hack. So what? In the words of the narrator, “Sometimes it’s a fallback and you land on a mattress full of money.” Alas, Movieola! is not for the artistically pure at heart.
Readers receive access behind the set, a front row seat to a sealed-off, snow-globe world where anything is possible – so long as it has a running time of under 120 minutes. It’s a place where rugged men are free to wear aviators and gel their hair without judgement. A land populated with fast cars, easy women, smoking guns, poisoned condoms (yes, you read that right), white picket fences, zombie weddings, happy endings, red herrings, and (on occasion) the smiling, dysfunctional nuclear family. Stick around long enough and you’re sure to run into the femme fatale. It’s a place we all know, and have been to countless times before, be it the popcorn-lined seats of a dark movie theater, or legs up in a recliner spending a quiet night at home.
In fact, that’s one of the book’s greatest strengths. What exactly is it that you love about your favorite character? What about place? Chances are a handful of images come to mind. In Domini’s world you don’t have to choose, because Movieola! pulls you by the wrist from moment to moment at the speed of an 80s montage.
In a sense, the best authors are masters of illusion. So too are the great filmmakers. What really sticks – in literature as well as film – is a collection of colorful details the audience is allowed to see. Successful stories are constructed from a few well-placed and vivid details. That’s where Domini rents the backhoe and dumps the lot. And why not? It’s not real life. The audience sure as hell does not pay for real life. Domini’s manic prose and fly by-the-seat-of-your-pants pace makes him a master of escapism. With characters like The Best Man, Gaylord, Dry-Ice Man, Venice, and Silver Lake, it’s hard to find anything else to compare to.
Domini’s strength is that he knows this. He’s not afraid to crank the dial to 10, then keep twisting just to see what happens. His work is an experimentation with rapid-fire images and jagged lines. But it’s also much more than that. Despite the deluge of Hollywoodisms, Movieola! also speaks truth to modern life. This is not the type of book to pick up after a long day of brain drain. Or perhaps it is. (“Tired, is that what I’m seeing, a whole lot of tired?”). It’s no stretch to compare Domini’s style to a burst dam. One can either sit back and let it wash over, or stand tall and brace against the tide. Either way, it’s easy to get lost if you’re not careful.
Take the opening of the first story, “Making the Trailer.” The reader is introduced to “A couple of adorable kids holding hands, waiting at the metal detector, and some clean-cut Homeland Security gunman giving them a worry-free smile (works best if the kids are white, the soldier black)…” The lines go on, switching points of view as quickly as an action movie changes camera angles. It’s easy to lose the smaller moments of Domini’s narrative in the brisk, unrelenting language. After all, his writing practically begs – no screams, no demands – to be read at a quick pace. Chop, chop, the reel is turning, the clock is ticking, time is money, and art ain’t going to make itself.
But in those smaller moments are a treasure trove of small gifts left for the reader, like gemstones scattered along a riverbed. Land where they may, it’s the things Domini doesn’t say that are so illuminating. We’re all familiar with the tropes; Domini just leaves them for the reader to pick up at will. But perhaps Domini’s real achievement is not the scene he sets so effectively, but how the poetry of his prose celebrates the grit and rhythm of the written word, all while simultaneously capturing the magic of life portrayed on the big screen.
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Alexander Oliver reviews books for The Literary Review. He is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University and is currently working on his M.A. in Educational Leadership at Montclair State University. When not drinking tea, discussing the finer points of English cheese, or being accused of general ‘snobbery’, he can be found in the library, recounting charming tales from his youth to anyone who will listen. Generally a bit of a jokester, he is quite serious about commas.