by Tara Atkinson, APRIL managing director
When Big World was published in 2009, my favorite story was “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” about a bad waitress who doesn’t get along with the other waitresses — “The waitresses don’t talk to me for reasons having to do with I fuck everybody and get paid twelve dollars an hour to slice lemons.” I was a delivery driver/prep cook who wanted to be a real cook but was too slow and always being sent to the back kitchen, which I knew was the right call. While I was alone in the back kitchen I’d grate some cheese, run out of cheese to grate, wait for someone to call for a delivery, and either sneak back into the kitchen to warm my hands over the soup or into the storeroom to read a book. I read Big World sitting on a steel prep table and also at the bar, where I’d sit after my shift and use my employee discount on beer. Inside the cover I made a dated list under the title ‘plan’ that involved a juice fast and increased exercise regimen. (In another list dated two days later I listed “cravings for general food: wings, cheese fries with ranch, cheese.”) It was a similar life to the story’s narrator’s and I had similar romantic problems, too, but I wasn’t even a waitress — just a delivery driver. It was the accident of the right book at the right time.
Literature is full of beautiful descriptions of mountains, ocean waves, fogs, smiles, the effects of light hitting a woman’s hair. Such descriptions can be transporting and inspiring, but when I was the delivery driver/prep cook grating cheese in a Midwestern bar, I had my problems to think about. I didn’t want to be transported to an ocean of rollicking waves unless the transportation was literal (“Dear John, Sorry. Bye. Maybe love… who knows.”). The pile of mozzarella in front of me was ridiculous to imagine as a mountain of snow. Literature is not full of piles of mozzarella. That was the thing that got me about Big World. Not just that it “got me” or that the scenery was familiar, but the well-crafted and perfectly suited way Miller describes things like mozzarella cheese.
Like the detail in “He had salad dressing on his shirt, a wet spot where he’d tried to rub it off. I could see his chest hairs. It was like looking through a porthole” in “Leak.”
Or how the order in “I have a job that doesn’t pay very well and friends I never see. I still sleep in my ex-boyfriend’s t-shirt. There are magnets on my refrigerator and a clutter of pizza coupons in my drawer. Is this a life?” creates such emotional juxtaposition and resonance (the story is “Even the Interstate is Pretty”).
Or how the off-hand tone of the narrator’s thoughts in “Aunt Jemima’s Old-Fashioned Pancakes” add up to so much more than the words on the page when the friend says she wants a Mexican pizza from Taco Bell: “I know she knows exactly how many calories are in a Mexican Pizza, and that she’d work out until she’d burned the whole thing off, even if it took all night. Sometimes she loses it and eats an entire box of donuts and we can’t hang out because she has to run sprints the rest of the day.”
Or the quiet metaphor with all the perfectly-placed commas at the end of “Full,”: “I remember how, when I first started carrying a purse, it was empty so I filled it with things I didn’t need, to take up space.”
I wondered if such things were worth talking about. One former not-even shitty waitress still remembers this book, still thinks yes.
'Reverse Fan Mail' is a special way that APRIL thanks its donors while connecting authors and readers at the same time.
If you donate for a ‘Reverse Fan Mail' to APRIL, we'll send your name to one of our favorite small press authors who will write a short, original work using your name as inspiration and you'll get a good-looking hard copy to show off. There are illustrated versions, too!
This year’s Reverse Fan Mails will be mailed in time for Valentine’s Day so you can send one to your sweetie.
Reverse Fan Mail authors include Jac Jemc, Matthew Rohrer, Stacey Levine, Ed Skoog, Joshua Beckman, Mark Leidner, Ryan Boudinot, Rebecca Bridge,Wendy Xu, Jane Wong, Rich Smith, Ted Powers, Peter Mountford, Drew Swenhaugen, Mike Young, Amber Nelson, Megan Kaminski, Richard Chiem, Matthew Simmons, and Doug Nufer.
More about our festival and our other thank you gifts at aprilfestival.com.
HAPPY ROCK (Dark Coast Press) is one hell of a little book. Completed over about a decade, the stories, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, cover everything from Dungeons and Dragons to the world’s largest fungus. They range from the realistic to the surreal, but each of them benefits from Matthew Simmons’ mastery of details and his conversational, unassuming voice.
When describing Simmons’ particular vein of the surreal, I can’t help but think of the first line from one of my favorite Donald Barthelme stories, “I Bought a Little City.” That story opens thusly: “So I bought a little city.”
What makes that sentence is the word “So.” With that one seemingly useless little word, Barthelme sets up the tone of the story—it’s convivial and weird, friendly but a bit menacing and sad. That’s the sort of writerly move that Simmons seems to pull off on almost every page.
See early on in “We Never, Ever Went to the Moon”: “His cord is cut, and he finds that he can fly, if he puts his mind to it.”
There’s that friendly little colloquialism “if he puts his mind to it,” as though flight were a matter of gumption.
Consider also Simmons’ Saunders-esque “Saxophone Lung Explodes.” In that story, the narrator’s father constructs a fleet of living clay replicas of his dead mother, which are prone to bursting at the slightest provocation. I think a writer of less skill and restraint would pat himself on the back over this claymation necromancy. He would show it off. Simmons, on the other hand, shows you the bucket that the narrator keeps on hand to clean up after the perpetually detonating replicas.
So many of these stories hum with that type of seemingly mundane detail. Simmons works past the wonder of his surreal premises and makes you appreciate the logistics. That’s no small feat.
Simmons doesn’t stay in one gear, though. The more ‘realistic’ stories in this book pack will suckerpunch you just as easily as their fantastical neighbors. “Rabbit Fur Coat” is an unflinching depiction of adolescent loneliness, and “Glory” is a short, sweet, tone poem that perfectly captures one aimless late-summer afternoon.
Life, whatever kind you’re living, is in the details. Simmons gets that. And you should get HAPPY ROCK.
HAPPY ROCK was the first selection for the APRIL Book Club. You can learn more about the APRIL Book Club on our website.
In case you missed our 2012 festival, here’s the complete lineup.
- Launch Party at Sole Repair, 3/22/12
readings from Rebecca Brown and Christopher Frizzelle
- HOARSE Undercover Release Party at Electric Tea Garden, 3/23/12
readings curated by HOARSE, musical performances by Blue Light Curtain, Tenderfoot, and LAKE
- [PANK] Invasion at Kaleidoscope Vision, 3/24/12
readings from Summer Robinson, M Bartley Siegel, Kelly Boyker, Morris Stegosaurus, Gregory Laynor, and Erik Evenson
- Chapbook-making Party at Richard Hugo House, 3/25/12
taught by Amber Nelson
- A Poet, a Playwright, and a Drag Queen at the Sorrento Hotel, 3/26/12
readings and performances from Mallery Avidon, Jackie Hell, and Debra Di Blasi
- Paper and Words at Cullom Gallery, 3/27/12
reading from Heather Folsom
- A Jello Horse at Hedreen Gallery, 3/28/12
reading from Matthew Simmons, musical performance by Levi Fuller, Film by Molly Gallentine and dir. Brandon Covey
- Porchlight Reading at Porchlight Coffee and Records, 3/29/12
readings from Chelsea Martin and Ryan Call
- APRIL Lit Crawl at Bluebird Creamery, Piecora’s Pizza, Arabica Lounge, The Crescent Lounge, and a super-secret Parking Garage, 3/30/12
readings from Richard Chiem, Doug Nufer, Paulette Gaudet, Stacey Levine, Jamey Braden, Greg Bem, Tara Atkinson, Riley Michael Parker, Diana Salier, Kate Lebo, Sarah Galvin, and Ed Skoog
- Small Press Expo at Richard Hugo House, 3/31/12
reading curated by Housefire