Peace Corps Writers
Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes
by Paul Violi (Nigeria 1966–67)
Hanging Loose Press
     231 Wyckoff Street
     Brooklyn, NY 11217-2208
January 2002
71 Pages
(Buy this book)

  Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
  Printer friendly version IF YOU NEED TO LAUGH at the absurdity of life during these dark days, I recommend that you run out and purchase this edgy, hilarious book by Paul Violi. But be forewarned: don’t expect frivolous humor. The unnamed narrator of each story has the sensibility of a twisted, paranoid imp. His is the deadpan voice of a jaundiced observer whose life is permeated with accidents, idiosyncratic juxtapositions, and macabre surprises at every turn. Another warning: don’t read this book on a train between New York City and Washington, DC as I did or on any public conveyance unless you don’t mind having the stranger in the next seat eye you warily and shift away as you break into uncontrollable giggles.
     Paul Violi is a poet of some renown; this is his eleventh book and he has innumerable awards and fellowships including a 2001 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes is his first prose collection. It consists of twenty-four miniature pieces, “anecdotes” taken from real life, the longest being four pages, and spanning thirty years from 1967 to 1997. The stories are not arranged chronologically, but instead are organized by an inner subtexual logic that makes complete subliminal sense to the reader within the illogic of the zany world Violi creates.
     In “Local Color” — my favorite story in the collection and a reason in and of itself to buy this book, Violi begins with an almost clichéd situation of a “city” guy with a home in the country, a man who seems much like the poet himself, a teacher, an intellectual and progressive in his politics who has an exchange with a well digger working next door. After the local fellow relentlessly interrogates our hero about who he is and what he believes in, what ensues is an uproariously funny flip on our expectations. I would spoil it if I told you what transpires, but suffice to say that when I read it aloud to my husband, he and I both were laughing so hard I could barely make my way through the story. But before Violi is finished with his compact little tale, he has turned the screw one notch tighter until, against your will, your heart aches for the local man.
     Anyone who has ever taught a creative writing course or suffered through one as a student will love Violi’s “On the Job” in which we encounter the first person narrator, our poet/teacher again, at the start of the semester with a new class, one with which he wants to set a good tone. The first student volunteering to read is a man, “tall, ruddy-faced, about thirty five.” Our narrator says in the opening of the story, “I’d heard him talking in the hallway before class began. A foghorn in fair weather. He must always sound like that, I thought. He must work in a factory. No matter where, even at a wake, he’s trying to make himself heard above the clatter of heavy machinery.” The foghorn reads a story about his father killing his pet bird, choking up and then weeping profusely by the end. “A delicate moment. The students appeared to be concerned.” So the teacher asks if he has another story. He does. He proceeds to read an excruciatingly humiliating story of being a clown at a children’s party. Again the student weeps as he reads, at which point the teacher loses it, but instead of crying in empathy, he’s overtaken by an inappropriate urge to laugh, and in the struggle to stifle the eruption he slides off his chair “like a pig out of a chute” in front of the entire class. Anyone reading up to this point in the story would say: “Great story.” But Violi isn’t content with that and again he adds a twist that I won’t give away, but which will leave you breathless at the last line.
     Not all the stories are humorous. Take “Kid Stuff” set in Turkey in 1968. It begins, “Mud paths line the distant mountainsides, loop across the sheer and glaring drop, and shacks hang off them like dead fruit on a vine.” It’s Ramadan and three young people, two men and a woman, are driving three new Mercedes from Istanbul to Teheran, sharing the task with Iranians who hired them for the job. At first “Kid Stuff” seems simply like an exceptionally well told Peace Corps tale of oddity and discomfort in a foreign country, until Violi writes of, “. . . Penny leaning out the car door, puking softly in the snow and then smiling, returning to the old notebook she had, constantly reworking, outlining a bad sketch of a stallion that she’d colored in with the blood from her first fix.” From this shocking moment on, the world Voili has created shifts to one of treachery, evil and viciousness. Somehow he makes us intuit the genesis of the local cruelty and understand how each day, around the world, the rage of powerlessness is played out against those who are perceived to be powerful.
     Perhaps what I said in the beginning of this review about Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes bringing comic relief into our lives isn’t entirely the case, but throughout the book your are assured of being in the hands of a master story-teller who uses his considerable gifts as a poet to make each sentence indelible, each anecdote significant, and each accident seem as inevitable as fate.
     Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes has been brought out by Hanging Loose Press, a venerated publisher in existence for over thirty-five years as a producer both of fine poetry books and a prestigious journal of the same name. The journal began in 1966 as a mere stack of mimeographed pages mailed out in a cover envelope, thus the name, Hanging Loose. The press went on to issue debut poetry collections of such writers as Sherman Alexie, Kimiko Hahn, D. Nurske, and Jack Agueros, as well as publishing the work of Ha Jin, Denise Levertov, Harvey Shapiro, Jayne Cortez, and Maureen Owen among hundreds of others. The gifted Paul Violi is in the company of peers at Hanging Loose Press.
Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps novel, Green Fires, was the winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Outstanding Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp where she was born. Her most recent novel is My Mother’s Island. It was named a BookSense 76 selection by the American Booksellers Association.
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