by Andrew Brininstool
Queen’s Ferry Press. 2014
Andrew Brininstool’s debut short story collection, Crude Sketch Sketches Done in Quick Succession, hurts because it hits home.
The book is part of a literary tradition I think is distinctly American. It’s the kind of fiction I’ve seen a lot in literary journals like Hobart and its companion independent press, Short Flight Long Drive Books. Stories from this world—inhabited by relentless writers like Elizabeth Ellen and Mary Miller—don’t perform. Instead, their prose style, setting, and theme seek to confront. These pieces, often driven by plainly told action and dialogue, challenge the reader to look right at the plastic-concrete mundanity of modern alienation.
I want to see how cruel the world is,” Gina told Ron a few days ago. “How ugly it can be. Isn’t it weird, Ron, how we can fake beauty, how we can try to hide what’s hideous but it always seems to find its way to the surface again?”
That’s a quote from “Big Eyes, Wide Smiles,” the third story in Brininstool’s collection. Ron, the main character, has spontaneously taken off on a road trip with a sex-obsessed ex-beauty queen. The two come to rest at a roadside inn in Umpstead, OK, a place Ron coincidentally stayed at during a cross-country trip with family when he was a child. Nostalgia pulls Ron from the highway, but the place is unyielding. “The pungent tang of chlorine came to Ron quickly, culled form memory, and from memory alone: the pool before him this afternoon was a pit half-filled with water the color of tea, home to beer cans and discarded Pampers.”
Has Ron made the wrong choice, abandoning his boring family life and numbing career for this weird Midwestern jaunt? Brininstool seems to think that question doesn’t matter. His characters inhabit a constant state of loss and longing, regardless of their particular circumstances.
This position is perhaps what allows these stories to become so pleasantly, amusingly specific. The characters in “Young Arsonists in Love,” are, for example, professionals in the consumer industry for baby products. The protagonist has achieved fame and fortune by inventing a device called “Daily Constitutionals” that quizzes children on the U.S. constitution while they’re using the toilet. What might read as quirky fabrication becomes achingly believable here; the trappings of consumer life become a kind of embarrassing synecdoche for the pain of existing in a weird and ugly world.
Brininstool’s stories often trap their readers at the suffocating intersection between absurdist excitement and that slow burn of inescapable disaffection. At first, the characters in these stories seem free: they leave their wives, they burn down their houses (or, at least, try to), they move away, they start new families, they skip school. When they are angry and grief-stricken, they are capable of taking action. But it turns out, of course, they are just as trapped as anyone. When Brininstool’s characters are divorced, for example, they remain deeply connected with their exes; parenting duties and unresolved feelings of longing lead these characters to maintain ties that keep them vulnerable, and keep them from feeling at home.
This set of psychic circumstances feels very familiar, and that’s why I think Brininstool’s writing is important. I tire, sometimes, of contemporary literature that focuses on genre-bending lyricism and structural acrobatics. The circumstances of real human life aren’t particularly poignant or beautiful, and when people make drama, it’s often only because they couldn’t possibly do anything else. What I mean to say is Brininstool forces me to get comfortable with things I’d rather avoid—things some writers also seem to avoid by making pain available only in an arty way.
For example, when Brininstool’s image set feels like it could go ecstatic, the prose style compensates by being straightforward. In “Stick Figures,” the main character’s ex-wife begins laser-removal treatments for a tattoo of a honeysuckle vine she had while they were together. But this past winter, says protagonist Sonny, when she told me she’d begun laser removal treatments, something in me cracked. I got hot with her, shouting things I hadn’t known I felt and calling her names I’d never called her before. The rage in me was frightening and unexpected. While my vision didn’t go red my voice took on a castrato timbre, the words entering the receiver tiny and bound together. Sonny’s angry, we know why, and nothing’s going to make any of this easier.
Any rapture in Brininstool lies with his subtle awareness of environment. Like Myra in “Kankakee,” I also went to college in Virginia, and now live in Illinois; I understand her love affair with the Midwest’s spare beauty, and there’s a momentary release from the collection’s emotional grind when she observes it. The cornfields proved awe-inspiring, she says, when sundown struck the pre-harvest just so: the red barns and silos, the bountiful yield. Too, I understand Myra’s creeping dread when snow descends: the only change in the locals is a hardening of their faces, a quiet resignation to what they’ve faced for centuries. It makes sense to me that the Midwest appears often in this collection. With its capacity to strand people in the midst of emptiness, it’s the perfect setting for stories centered on the circumstances of living with loneliness.
Or perhaps these stories are about mystery. In “Kankakee,” Myra starts receiving the contents of an entire life, piece by piece, in the mail. Knives, cleaning products, collectible coins, then even siding and boards begin to arrive at her door. Who’s doing the sending, and, more importantly, what’s in the final box? Could it actually be her mentally ill husband, or is this just a projection of her own increasingly unstable fears and desires? Again, Brininstool insists these question of fact aren’t important—instead, it’s how Myra feels about her circumstances that matters most.
Ejected from the lives they thought they wanted, Brininstool’s characters continually watch the American dream crumble, or at least rearrange itself. If life is a pile of material junk, how, then, does happiness proceed? Ultimately, I think, Brininstool argues our only choice is to accept a persistent unknown. For some reason, even in the midst of the plastic, the cheap and the heartbreaking, we still try to live, and be happy. There is no other option.
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