“Nothing is impossible if you really try. Hold on to your dreams and they can come true. Miracles can happen in your daily life. All you have to do is look around. But whoever said that wasn’t from Alabama.”
What do folks say in Alabama? According to Pushcart-winner Jack Pendarvis, what they say isn’t as important as what they do: dreaming of placing cartoons with the New Yorker, smoking hash in toll booths, driving a caravan of goats overland towards the Mason-Dixon line. To call the stories in Pendarvis’ sophomore effort “quirky” would be a misnomer; Pendarvis’ attempts, and generally succeeds, in being eccentric as possible. A typical opening runs: “Henry and his mother returned home from Wednesday-night prayer meeting to find an enormous owl eating sausage biscuits out of a torn sack on the kitchen counter.” It’s a bit of a standard opening, reminiscent of Garcia Marquez and Chabon. But unlike those authors, who quickly move to assess the ramifications of their imaginative leaps and make them answerable to the dictums of narrative, Pendarvis allows his creativity to sprawl out of control – the owl holds a biscuit in its talon; a woman cries “Uncle Lipton!”; the owl chases a young boy down a narrow hallway, “emitting a stream of constant stream of silky yellow defecation”; it finally smashes into a bathroom mirror and turns it to diamonds. The connection between “Lipton” and “yellow” – whatever it might represent to a story about a temporarily-orphaned boy who joins forces with a radical preacher – is only one of the more obvious examples of Pendarvis’ associative aesthetic. His definition of heroism is being blown up in a Methadone clinic that is funding a terrorist cell; his definition of godliness hinges on the choice between boxers and briefs (the latter “choke off the life and prevent the possibility of marriage”). And so on. Enjoyment of the stories in Body is generally as immediate and temporary as the pop culture they reference; they’re often less stories than collected bursts of images, fragmented narrative, and repeated phrases. The collection’s initial offering, “Lumber Land” (initially published in McSweeney’s 20 as The Big Dud) offers this hilarious take on one Everyman’s unsuccessful efforts to place work in one of America’s most desired literary publications:
The day Miss Tina Brown took over The New Yorker magazine I knew in my heart that the ‘fuck’ word would writhe on its pages like a plague of locusts. These editors, they take one look and say, ‘Oh, this fellow is from old working-class Alabama stock. He can’t possibly use the ‘fuck’ word enough to meet our quota of ‘fuck’ words in this modern publishing world. Let’s throw his manuscript directly in the trash can and use his return postage to mail off our water bill…’
Strangely, Pendarvis’ self-reflexive use of ‘fuck’ words is much more likely to land him on the pages of The New Yorker these days than ever before. George Saunders, whose Civil WarLand in Bad Decline set the barometer for contemporary highbrow hipster fiction more than a decade ago, has given Body his blessing. This is no surprise: the two share structural and syntactic affiliations. The question is now whether Pendarvis is merely a benighted imitator, or whether there is something substantively different about his prose. Saunders praises Body’s characters as “dangerously funny.” Saunders is wrong; this fiction will only be seen as “dangerous” by clock-winding schoolmasters like Charles Baxter. But while Body proceeds along clearly established lines, it remains a unique and important work.
Noah Cicero once pointed to a critical oversight of “Hysterical Realist” fiction: its stories could take place anywhere. There are good reasons for this choice: how effective or fitting are detailed descriptions of setting to a generation with a circumcised attention span, a generation too used to receiving its thousand-word realism through other media to wade through similar offerings in print? Saunders’ choice, like those of most McSweeney’s authors, is to make landscape speculative, surreal – in other words, a matter of intellectual debate – and thus far more conducive to the pen than the lens. But human beings do not, at least not yet, physically inhabit the worlds that Saunders creates. Pendarvis’ south, while clearly hysterical, is also clearly southern. Even homogenized by housing developments or gazing at strangers around a New York City dinner table, southern twangs escape their lips. Ciphers they often are – there’s no sense that “Tollbooth”‘s protagonist feels any remorse after his botched assignment as a drug mule leads to an assault on his parents, for example – but at least we know that he had been fired from a tea shop and a video store beforehand. That these characters have a clear history of failure makes their “exile” all the more omnipresent, and evokes a genuineness often absent or misplaced by younger southern writers like Kevin Moffett or Karen Russell. Pendarvis is no Saunders; his prose, while consistently delightful, doesn’t dig for the more devastating compromises of the heart. But Pendarvis has done something new, and exciting, with a crucial, and currently overlooked, aspect of storytelling. His South is a place that characters may often want to leave, but also one where they certainly live, and for a long time. As will you.
About the author:
Miles Clark used to volunteer at McSweeney’s, The Believer, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Opium. He currently reviews for www.newpages.com, and edits No Record Press (www.no-record.com). His first novel has just been published. He lives in Brooklyn.