Book Review: 420 Characters

For those who didn’t know his primary work, this volume’s accompanying illustrations reveal Lou Beach as a collage-maker and graphic surrealist, an accomplished maestro of dream-like juxtapositions and mixed surface-depth relations. So too with these 420-character stories, which masterfully restate visual incongruities as narrative effects.

They’re benign, but their good will is not entirely to be taken for granted. Along with the amusement comes a little bit of risk, like the flow of a river that starts smooth and then rushes us out beyond our depth and then leaves us there, flailing.

The surreal strain is perhaps most evident. A bravo flays his own skin and wears it like a jacket, a tiny man lives with a finch in the cranny of a wall and another in the pocket of a bright paisley shirt, a formally set dinner table sprouts a vegetable garden, a reader removes his shoes and steps into a book (its punctuation sticks to his chin), a guy keeps his friends in a box under his bed “secured by blue rubber bands that originally held broccoli,” an ominous summons arrives from a latterday palace.

This isn’t just show-off surrealism, though, or Dali-esque surrealism for its own sake.  It is situated surrealism, fixed and rooted in the everyday. Or, to put it more exactly, in the “mythic everyday”—because these delimited little narratives inhabit an imaginative everyday with deep roots into Owen Wister’s and Zane Grey’s West, into spy and espionage novels and GI Joe fantasies, and Chandleresque crime noir, and the rest of it. Its shifting cast of characters includes shootists, molls, nurses, swells, barflies, waitresses, miners, squatters, soldiers of fortune, siding-salesmen, unwitting accomplices, a crazed yokel, a saloon madame, a bored hitman—even a couple of vulnerable males: a carpool daddy, a deserted husband who inhabits his wife’s routine, and a rooter in a lost wife’s closet.

Settings include campgrounds, ambuscades, riverbanks, corrals, mines, strip-mall bars, places you get to on horseback or by boat. The reader of enough of these—and anyone who starts will read plenty—eventually ends up inside a phantasmagorical junkyard of American wishes and griefs, a place jammed with the tapped out detritus of the American dream.

But if any of this sounds discouraging, it’s not. There’s resourceful, inexhaustible energy here, the momentum of sheer invention that sweeps the reader on past potential dead ends, and into a bracing sense of alternate possibility. I’m reminded here of similar tonalities in songs by Richard Buckner and poems by Dean Young, tough-acting guys with a relenting streak. Often embracing the insouciant trouble-maker’s point of view, Beach doesn’t forget the harm that trouble-makers do.

And have I said it yet?  He’s funny. Hands in his pockets, he saunters past these burial places of abandoned hopes, shows his reader that they can be rousted out and made to speak, enlisted for purposes of amusement, can dance to his music, even against their own will.

For more, read Lou Beach’s interview with 100 Word Story. Or check out the stories he’s published in 100 Word Story.

Paul Strohm grew up in Western Springs, Illinois. He has taught medieval literature at Oxford and Columbia. He now divides his time between Oxford and Brooklyn, and writes freelance. He has published several 100-word stories and been interviewed in 100 Word Story

One Response to “Book Review: 420 Characters”

  1. mac mcgill says:

    …thank u….please….more!….



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