A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns: Stories

by Tom Paine
Louisiana State University Press, 2015.

Published in 2015 by Louisiana State University Press, Tom Paine’s third book, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns: Stories, is a collection of nine short stories, each delving into moral, political and social dilemmas, prying at the “anarchistic beauty” of post-millennium society. A thoroughly cerebral work, Paine presents each of the nine stories in this collection against the backdrop of the shifting twenty-first century, a world in a transitory state of unsettlement, a world where computer apps, Wall Street and “global warming machines zooming by…on the dark interstate” strum a bassline to society’s diluting of morality for progress. Paine presents a world in which emotional and spiritual presence are deteriorating, where one is less likely to “think the life of a human being is equal in value to that of a parrotfish,” than one is to pose an indifferent inquiry to a returning Afghanistan veteran: “Can I ask how many terrorists you killed?” The themes of Paine’s stories raise contemporary ethical and moral questions, while remaining balanced through an interwoven sense of discomforting humor, often presented in the cynical assertions of his authentically rounded characters.

As with his previous works, Paine excels in his ability to humanize each of the collection’s characters. From a “macrobiotic, unemployed, Occupy Wall Street” liberal, to a “smoking hot” teenage girl described as “a soldier in Afghanistan’s wet dream,” to Yoshiki, a Japanese Rastafarian reggae artist convinced the CIA killed Bob Marley, Paine’s characters remain wholly original throughout. They are heroic, not in their actions, but in their internal persistence, their willingness to grind on in the midst of a world shifting in the early twenty-first century. Each is found in the grips of their own personal conflicts, and Paine ensures they remain loyal, at times, dishearteningly, to the realistic limitations of the human condition. They ponder the world. They love. They hold discontent and suffer nervous breakdowns. Most importantly, they are humanly flawed, authentic in their inability to transcend the inevitable repercussions of their respective environments.

From Fukushima, Japan to Baghdad, Iraq, to the Occupy Wall Street movement, Paine excels at rooting his narratives in the headlines that peppered the first decade of the century. However, Paine doesn’t allow these settings to remain merely headlines, stagnant, stiff-armed incidents the reader scans over morning coffee. In Paine’s work, corruption on Wall Street is broad, stale in comparison to a single company’s “cannibalistic and almost immediately mythic” disposal of a “quiet little geeky guy,” a buried genius victimized by the “testicular contortion in the elephantine egos of the Goldmanites.” The meltdown at Fukushima, “the Chernobyl line,” and an estimate of lives lost in the newspaper are static in comparison to Paine’s vivid detail, family members classified as “radioactive waste,” “a dog missing a leg—with the bone showing,” barking its way through a garden of toxic soil. Each setting presented in this collection has a history, providing depth, an authentic canvas for Paine’s distinctive style and expertly implanted sense of foreboding to thrive. Indeed, it is this sense of foreboding, that twenty-first century sense that something still can, and must, be done, that propels Paine’s work from the first to the final page.

Tom Paine’s third book, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns: Stories is a significant, influential work, an introspective examination of the human condition in the early twenty-first century. Paine’s unique style pairs the natural poetic and detailed place, reminiscent of Jim Daniels, with philosophic and ethical undertones, rivaling Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, into an utterly original cocktail. This collection tugs at the deteriorating presence of humanity in the first decade of the century, each narrative a slice of Paine himself, pleading the contemporary audience to remember what it is we’ve discarded, to remember, “A clear blue sky is an emotion, not a fact.”


David Z. Drees