John Sheppard's Small Town Punk was originally a self-published book offered through iUniverse, but even though it reportedly sold a respectable 2,000 copies in that format, it has now been republished by Ig Publishing. That a book as well-written and conceived as this one would only find a home with a "real" publisher through so circuitous a route says everything about the current clueless state of publishing in the United States. Small Town Punk is easily as "readable" as any of the story-driven fare that dominates American publishing, and it surpasses most "literary fiction" pumped out by those same publishers in the quality of its prose, the intelligence of its approach, and the soundness of its aesthetic execution.
Which is not to say it is particularly original, either in its form or, especially, in the characters and milieu it portrays. The "punk" of the title is literally one of those natives of the first punk rock generation of the late 1970s/early 1980s, as are his few friends in the "small town" of Sarasota. Florida. The novel depicts a few months in the life of the 17-year-old protagonist as he awaits graduation from high school, works part-time at Pizza Hut, and anticipates (or doesn't) whatever comes next. The episodes related are etched out in a relatively vivid way in this character's first-person account, but ultimately Small Town Punk is a portrayal of "alienated youth" of a kind that has become rather common in contemporary American (and British) fiction. In this case the novel attempts to show us "how it was" in the early Reagan era rather than posing as a sociological expose of present-day Kids In Crisis, but its status as an historical novel of sorts really only deadens its emotional effect. In some ways this is an asset to the book, since it reinforces the sense that for many young people like "Buzz" Pepper this was an emotionally dead time, but for me the alienated youth theme only seems all the more conventionalized and predictable when it's cast as the foundation of an historical re-creation, a glimpse of a previous era's teenage wasteland.
On the other hand, Small Town Punk mostly avoids melodrama, and Buzz Pepper's narration provides it with a compelling voice that raises it above a mere historical survey and allows the novel to avoid the more egregious uses of "psychological realism," which in this kind of historical narrative would no doubt become just a way of prying out "information" about how such characters perceived their situation. Although to describe Small Town Punk as either a "novel" or a "narrative" actually fails to precisely identify its formal/structural characteristics. I found the book most interesting as a kind of "in-between" work, not quite a novel if one's definition of the form requires a traceable story arc, but also not exactly a collection of stories if one expects each episode to be itself a self-contained work capable of standing alone, apart from the larger whole to which it also contributes. A few of the "stories" in Small Town Punk would stand well enough on their own, might even provide a useful condensation of the book's strategies and concerns, but ultimately they seem to be conceived as parts of a whole. They are as likely to move sideways as forward, adding to the novel's generally plotless plot through accretion, a layering effect, rather than becoming dramatic points to be marked off on Freytag's Triangle. There's plenty of "action" to be found in each of the episodes--the sort one could anticipate from titles like "Wasted" and "Hot Cars"--but it's not the kind of action to which other pleasures, pleasures of voice, character, and setting, are required to be subsumed.
Perhaps it is the lack of obvious drama, of "high concept" or the exciting "hook," that accounts for the publishing history of Small Town Punk. Perhaps not even the smaller or more adventurous presses saw much in the way of sales from a book that shows no inclination to bend to the existing commercial winds and that takes "realism" seriously as the attempt to render life as the accumulation of non-events and ordinary frustrations it sometimes (often?) turns out to be. The novel has a mildly optimistic conclusion:
I turned 18, the age of majority. One more semester, and I'd be rid of the whole lot of them. Masturbatory thoughts of the day I'd walk out the door spun in my head.
I applied to the University of Florida, and was accepted. I would put two hundred miles between them and me. Two-fucking-hundred miles.
Until then, I closed the door of my room every afternoon and blasted my music as loud as I could. Then I went to work.
But the feeling evoked in the novel is one of limited opportunity enveloped in an atmosphere of swamp-like gloom. That the novel pulls this off while remaining a more or less "entertaining" read is to me a mark of its accomplishment, and that publishers (before Ig) would stay away from it despite its manifest stylistic and formal virtues hints to me that other similarly skilled works of fiction are being written and duly shunned by our aesthetically-challenged "book business."
Security is a short (96 pages), Bukowski-esque novel about an American in Paris, a down-on-his-luck security guard who drifts from temporary job to temporary job and whose marriage, which is about the only positive force in his life, is, as it finally turns out, in the process of ending as well. In addition to chronicling its protagonist's current efforts simply at surviving, the novel also relates incidents from his horrifyingly abusive childhood, abuses which, along with his subsequent failures to "make it" in mainstream society, clearly enough contributed to his tenuous mental state (which in turn has contributed to his failure to make it, etc.) "Tom knew he had become strange," we are told during his final phone conversation with his wife, "and he didn't feel like he knew himself or anyone else including Isabelle." The novel ends with what appears to be a positive change in Tom's circumstances (a job, a reunion with Isabelle) only to lead abruptly to what appears to be the character's death at the hands of terrorists/mercenaries. (We can't really be sure at this point if these events are truly happening or whether they're some manifestation of Tom's "madness.")
In his review of Security, Noah Cicero calls the novel "concentrated human suffering," which seems about right, although Cicero doesn't really offer any analysis of how the novel accomplishes such concentration, emphasizing instead how its prose is "too concrete, too direct, too straight forward" to require much "literary terminology" to describe it. "The language resembles that of a John Grisham or Steven King," he writes, "but instead of telling the story of lawyers or a horror story it is showing the life of a man who is alone, alienated, broken, has one tragedy forced upon him after another." I think this is unfair to Nowlan's prose and overstates the extent to which his novel is formless, merely "showing" us a case of alienation rather than composing the events in its protagonist's life into a coherent whole that is, to some degree, deliberately shaped.
Security presents itself as a series of mishaps, a chronicle of Tom's misfortunes related as one damn unhappy thing after another. We could take this as simple plotlesssness, a subverting of conventional norms governing "story," character development, etc. (which perhaps it is), but surely such a strategy doesn't entail a complete lack of narrative purpose, an abandonment of all form, even that minimal formal coherence contributed by "plot." Surely Nowlan's more or less picaresque approach to storytelling in Security is a strategy, used precisely to foreground Tom's plight as "alone, alienated, broken," etc. Nowlan has adopted the picaresque narrative, usually to be found in sprawling tales spread out in both time and space, to create a more foreshortened, more intensely realized, indeed more "concentrated" work of fiction that would not have the same impact had it been "shaped" in some other way, had it instead come in the form of a conventional "well-made story" employing the contemporary default mode of "psychological realism." If the novel is "a story of an alienated human struggling and struggling and struggling without getting any rewards" (Cicero), it conveys this impression only because it has found its "sufficient form," not because it rejects form in favor of "life."
By comparing Nowlan's writing to that of John Grisham or Stephen King, Cicero must be suggesting that his prose is accessible, uncomplicated, not self-consciously "literary." I would say that while it is accessible, this doesn't necessarily make it simple or artless. Grisham and King are "accessible" because their novels are written to be movies, as substitutes for movies, their prose stripped of all distinguishing characteristics, including art. Their "plain" styles are really just exercises in banality, studiously avoiding the "literary" because to attempt something other than bare proficiency would reveal the aesthetic void at the core of their work. Nowlan's relatively unadorned style, on the other hand, is restrained in its effects because this is what is needed to tell Tom's story, to evoke his character in an honest way to begin with. It even at times has its own kind of blunt lyricism:
When he got home he tried on the uniform before the mirror. He tried looking like a security guard but it wasn't convincing. Something was lacking. Then he remembered something he had read about serial killers in America being attracted to work in security. They had frequently tried to get on the police force of several cities but had been rejected as psychologically unfit so they had to settle for the rent a cop uniform. This idea made a sly smile across his lips; he tensed the muscles of his face to hide it and there it was the expression that he wanted. You see such faces and you ask yourself is this someone angry at the world because he is too stupid to understand it or perhaps because he understands it too well? His wife came in while he was getting deeper into his act. She had received the news of his new position with happiness and she had thought they could celebrate by drinking some wine and making love after a nice meal but seeing him there in his cheap uniform turned her off and he ended up drinking the wine alone.
(Although I have to say that Nowlan's disregard of the role of punctuation doesn't always work to the benefit of his prose. At times it simply impedes the forward flow of language, which, if anything, makes the book less straightforward and accessible. And what the book's back cover comment calls the "edginess" created by the frequent "raw typos" doesn't work at all. They do call attention to the text's status as text, but I don't think this kind of accidental postmodernism is what Nowlan (or the ULA) really has in mind.)
Security is not as revolutionary or disorderly as the proclamations by its publisher (the Underground Literary Alliance) about its own mission might suggest it to be, but I don't see why this novel needs to be such in order to be worthwhile. It's easily as good as what is published in many other small presses, and in fact infinitely preferable to the eye-glazing "literary fiction" shoveled out by the bigger publishers. It provides its share of readerly pleasures while also posing some welcome challenges to conventional expectations of "good fiction.
As found in her new book, The Suburban Swindle, Jackie Corley's stories would seem to be classifiable as a kind of slice-of-life realism, episodes, some quite circumscribed and plotless, that add a little fictional flesh to bare-bones themes of cultural anomie announced in the first paragraphs of the very first such episode, "Blood in Jersey":
What are we? What we are is oiled sadness. Dead garden snakes and dried-up slugs. We're what happens when you're bored and scared too long, when you sit in piles in some dude's basement trying to get the guy's white supremacist brother to shut the fuck up for five fucking minutes. You sit in those hordes and some emo kid takes out a bag of clumpy, dried-up weed and shakes it like he's accomplished something.
What this is is Jersey. This is fear so thick and buried under, you pretend you're not on fire. The boys are brawling on the front lawn and coming back down to the basement with finger-mark welts on their necks and bloody, rubbery scratches on their chests.
But while most of the stories do provide a brief and immediate immersion in the "oiled sadness" of suburban New Jersey youth, the aimlessness and alienation to which we are exposed might seem overly familiar, a little too reminiscent of various movie versions of alienated youth (although I nevertheless do not doubt the accuracy of the portrayal, nor the authenticity of its sources). And if The Suburban Swindle was just another depiction of youthful discontent with suburban life, it would not really be able to make much of a claim on our attention. However, the primary appeal of the book, at least for me, lies not in the details of life as endured in New Jersey but in those of its stylistic and formal features already to be perceived in "Blood in Jersey" and its opening paragraphs.
The pruned-back structure of a story like this (admittedly an especially brief one, although all of the stories, even those of a more conventional length, are similarly committed to an overall narrative minimalism) ultimately brings an increased emphasis on the language with which such a lightly plotted story is presented, on the story as the unfolding of its language. Often in this sort of narratively truncated realism "style" is notably de-emphasized, made as "plain" as possible, but here no attempt is being made to conceal the "writing" that, almost literally, turns out to everything in "Blood in Jersey," not just the vehicle for plot and character development. The first several stories in The Suburban Swindle likewise deflect the reader's initial interest in storytelling and characterization toward their own verbal flourishes, but even the stories that do introduce incident and more fully sketched-out characters still call attention to the prose with which such elements are deployed more that we might expect in conventional realism.
One might say that the "radical exclusion" manifest in these stories goes beyond the implicit narrowing of focus to be found in all short stories and extends to the exclusion of any extraneous plot devices and gestures at character "depth" that inhibit immediacy of expression. Of course, one could also suggest that the sparseness in plot and character only reinforces the essential realism of the stories, since the kinds of lives they portray are themselves likely to be rather short on "plot" and psychologically afflicted in generally similar ways. But whether form most often influences content or content determines form, the result in this collection is a kind of fiction in which the form of expression doesn't merely point us to its subject but is dynamically a part of it in a way that I, for one, find impressive:
The cigarette should burrow through him. It should take his skin to butter and give me a rabbit hole on his skinny, hairless arm. Then I could pull up his shirt sleeve any time I wanted and admire it, that charred empty well. It would always belong to me.
When I try to bring the coal down in the middle of a lazy map of freckles, he flinches again, laughing. His naked torso folds in on itself, as if he's blocking some probing, tickling hand, and he keeps giggling, high and sloppy and loud. He goes down to the floor, drink still buoyed up in the air by an extended right hand. ("Fine Creatures")
I wouldn't say that The Suburban Swindle is a flawless book--sometimes the familiarity of the material does subsume the liveliness of the writing--but it introduces a writer whose approach both to her subject and to the literary presentation it requires certainly makes me curious about what her future work might be like.