Mad to Live: A Collection of Very Short Fiction
by Randall Brown
Chico, CA: Flume Press, 2008
Review by Heather Bergstrom
Much of life is packed into this forty-page chapbook of one-to-two page stories by Randall Brown. The setting, for the most part, may be suburbia, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty going on behind closed doors, in garages, in family rooms, and in the branches of neighborhood trees. There's infidelity. There's abuse and abandonment and loss and even OCD. But there is also great tenderness and longing and belief and goodness.
The chapbook is divided into four sections. The first section opens with "Little Magpie." The narrator comes across his wife eating ants on the garage floor. She is pregnant. There have been two previous miscarriages. The bleeding is heavier this time, which the narrator tries to convince himself is a "good sign." Before driving his wife to the hospital he goes to a pet store and buys her crickets to eat. Odd. Disturbing. Moving. The section ends with a story called "Just Like Flies," in which a husband happens upon his wife having sex with a man dressed like Spiderman. When he commands Spiderman to remove his mask, the superhero replies, "First your mask." The husband flees, as if he is the bad guy. The ending is one of my favorites: "...I shouldn't have looked back because earth is rising to meet me, the dirt of it, the hard crust. Here it comes—the all of it."
Section two is perhaps the most touching section. The four stories deal with parenthood. The first story is about a dad and son at a soccer game. The son sucks. The dad is ashamed and feels guilty. He almost lets his son quit (and is gleeful at the prospect) until he realizes he can't. Pain is part of life. In the second story, the narrator, who has lost his own kids, attempts to bond with a fatherless neighbor boy who happens to think himself an alien. In "Facing Extinction," a dad struggles to abate his young son's deep fears about life and death: "He reaches for my hand, wanting something else, some certainty, some answer ..."
"Bats and Balls" opens the third section, which again deals with issues of family and abuse, but also salvation. This first story is one of my favorites. The narrator, a thirteen-year-old boy, has lost interest in playing baseball, though it is his "father's love." The boy says, "When I thought I loved him, I ran over the entire earth to catch his monster launches." Gone are those days. The boy now sits in the field and refuses to play any more ball. His dad is furious, and continues to launch balls his son's direction. The reader fears for the young boy. But the boy—and here's the beautiful part—fears for his dad. In the final story of this section, another son is trying to deal with a larger-than-life father. This time the dad is a professor who has no time for anything outside of books. The son says, "Maybe it's okay to believe in this world." And so, like the boy in the baseball story, he saves himself.
The final section takes a turn, adding another layer to the book. The stories are not just about family, but about being a writer creating family. "I've made up hundreds of childhoods," the narrator in the first story says. "That's the sickness I got," he confesses, "the desire for the story that provides the edge to define me." In another story about creating a character named Morton Bonsey, the narrator concludes, "We both want to live." The final story returns to the theme of infidelity and abuse. The narrator's mom yanks a neighborhood girl—whom the narrator will forever write into his stories—out of a tree to tell her she is sick of her mom fucking her husband.
Randall Brown's stories leave readers feeling they too have lived many childhoods. Readers close his chapbook more aware of the dangers of family, but also the absolute necessity for it, and for fiction. Life and life represented. Flume Press did a lovely job, as always, with the design and production of this book. The cover is as edgy and inviting as the stories within.
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