Review

    Something Grand
    by John Flynn (Moldova 1993–95)
    Be Move Press
    October 2002
    117 pages
    $10.00

    Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

    THESE STORIES ARE FROM THE GUTTER, housed with losers, wannabes and out-of-luck dreamers, whose mouths bulge with alcohol and vulgarities, whose lives are done before they’re begun, whose imaginations carry them no further than their backyards. Something Grand, the ironical title of this collection of eleven short stories, presents us with a number of poor, uneducated or traumatized individuals struggling for respect from themselves and others in a larger world. As readers with the benefit of an external perspective, it is easy for us to see they are mentally and emotionally unequipped to fill any station beyond their present one. The problem with Something Grand, is that the stories are ungrounded in larger environments or contexts that might provide alternatives to their current situations. While the characters, their relationships and their problems are revealed in sufficient detail, they float in a landscape of their own barbs and expletives, with no role models or choices toward which they — and through them the readers — might strive.
         This lack of environment begins with a failure to provide external descriptions. In “Wistah Irish,” an uneducated and frustrated hospital janitor drives to a nearby bar after arguing with his wife who wants to name their first-born after an “uppity” friend whom her husband despises. At the bar, when he spots a new SUV, the prose withdraws into furious, expletive-ridden internal monologue. Avis throws a cinder block through the SUV window but does so without providing a larger description of the bar scene from which a chance detail of hope might be gleaned. Why shouldn’t Avis get mad if he sees no choice for anything else? The same is true in “Pulpo Avoids A Hard Time,” whose protagonist, an Hispanic who works several jobs in east Los Angeles, is not as convinced as his wife that they can make ends meet and make a life for themselves. The bulk of the story takes place in the restaurant where Pulpo is a dishwasher. He is hassled by fellow employees, accused of smoking marijuana, which could lead to his getting fired, and dreams of killing his boss. Other characters, whose lives or situations might be more hopeful, are completely absent. Pulpo, like Avis, is reduced to vulgarity and violent thoughts, which does little to endear him to the readers’ sympathy.
         In rare moments the author presents a fine, sympathetic detail that readers may identify with: “Daddy’s Home” tells us about a father who works too hard but presents his children with a new football, only to accidentally kick it on the roof, ending their fun a few minutes later. In another story, Ethan, a musically talented but naïve country boy falls into the web of despair of an older sexual predator in New York City and sacrifices his violin to her jealousy. At the end, we are told: “For many days after, Ethan cried meekly to himself, alone. Not he, nor his beloved instrument, would ever sound the same.”
         Most of the troubled characters brood deeply and enforce an emotional paralysis on themselves that makes it impossible to improve their lives. The stories are often overwritten as well, but most importantly, they are limited by the author’s failure to drive beyond a general malaise to a broader environment where improvement or happiness might be found. The characters guard their personalities, even from the readers, through recourse to violence, alcohol and vulgarity. In doing so, these stories degenerate rapidly into tales of conditions rather than of conflicts. And as a result, boxed in with little hope for escape or victory, the weak characters lose the readers’ interest as well as our desire to travel with them through the pages.

    Joe Kovacs is a regular contributor to WorldView Magazine. His most recent articles, “The Harlem Renaissance, Washington, DC” and the “Rise of Langston Hughes” will appear early next year on Literary Traveler.com. He recently accepted a marketing position with Gelman, Rosenberg and Freedman accounting firm in Bethesda, MD.