From Sink Hole to Surface: Belle Boggs’ Mattaponi Queen

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In his preface to Mattaponi Queen, the recipient of the 2010 Bakeless Fiction Prize awarded by the Breadloaf Writers Conference, Percival Everrett states, “It is always good to hear new voices, but the newness of a voice alone carries no literary value.”  This is a telling statement in regards to Belle Boggs, for though the stories contained in Mattaponi Queen comprise Boggs’ debut, they give the impression of a writer who has been lingering in our midst for many years.

Often reviews will cite passages, lines and turns that encompass the greater themes of a work as a whole, Boggs’ writing is not the type that necessarily lends itself to quotation. She is not a stylist whose isolated sentences will jump off of the page, but when taken as a whole the reader learns to appreciate them in the same manner one might marvel at the individual thread so as to fully understand the tapestry it helps to create, and her writing possesses a gravitas and earnestness that belies her youth.

Mattaponi Queen takes as its subject matter the plethora of characters who inhabit the rural backwoods of King and Queen County, Virginia. Because of this, Boggs has and will invariably draw comparisons to Susan Straight and Victoria Patterson, other notable contemporary writers whose debut collections revolved around the notion of place and the “identity” afforded by it, but unlike her California compatriots, Boggs’ work is steeped in the idea and myth of the American South, and despite having spent time in Brooklyn and Irvine—where she earned her MFA—Boggs’s work is Faulknerian in its consistency. Still, whereas Faulkner’s verbosity proclaimed a writer tasked with penning into being a people displaced by the loss of a confederacy that never truly was, Boggs’ work quietly reminds us that they are still there, and her main skill is in showing us that although her residents are, by dint of their addresses, “Southern” they are more so citizens of a world that, like a town along Route 66, has been doomed by the approach of an interstate being constructed mere miles away. Far from being harbingers of good fortune, in Boggs’ world time and progress are the enemy, bringing with them more issues, problems and fears that will hang in dubiously in the air like the dense humidity commonly smothering the Virginia landscape.

Still, while Boggs’ characters are rural, they are anything but folksy. They are cosmopolitan in their own way—people with dreams and ideas of betterment. People who, like George in Boggs’ penultimate story “Shelter,” lie in bed and imagine “Brick with dark shutters, a little green yard in front. Trees lining the street. Kids riding bicycles…” yet full-well knowing that this cartoon-like fantasy of suburbia is a place beyond them. It is something not allowed, for to live in the literal and figurative space of King and Queen County is to reside deep inside the many sinkholes that pock the country. The surface is a faraway place protected from their advances by steep and slick walls of dirt and limestone, and even should one be able to taste some semblance of life on the surface George understands that betterment often comes from trading in a view of a cornfield for one with a bus shelter. To survive in Boggs’ world one must learn quickly how to differentiate small victories from hollow ones.

The language of Mattaponi Queen is simple, but precise and skilled, as Boggs has a knack for capturing both the comedy and absurdity in all levels of human relationships that, in the hands of a lesser writer, would smack heavily of the melodramatic and the clichéd fables of the downtrodden, but the failures of her characters are active ones. They do not curse fate nor do they resign themselves to it, but gaze upon it with the unique perspective that allows a character who has recently attempted suicide to write to a friend that he will be returning home from the hospital soon. The assumption being that he is recovering, until Boggs concludes her paragraph with the darkly funny “as soon as his mom’s insurance money ran out.”

In Mattaponi Queen this gallows humor proves necessary, and often one is unclear whether the light at the end of the tunnel signals the brilliance of the sun or a rapidly approaching train. But her characters are more than snarky derelicts. They are questioning beings, ones often searching for meaning to an isolated existence or to recapture a moment, now gone forever, in which they believed themselves to be truly happy even as Boggs’ narration reveals to the reader how it is all self-delusion, an illusion born of nostalgia for anything but the present moment. They bend and twist and contort, but even if small fissures develop in the process, they remain unbreakable.

If one attempted to define the uniting theme behind Mattaponi Queen besides its geography, they would be left with a discourse on love in all its various unrequited and confused forms. For Ronnie, the pregnant wife of a maimed veteran, it is “Something you thought you should have until it was right there in front of you and you realized you were committed to it whole.” For Melinda it is the silent understanding that in accepting her husband’s sex change, she will forever destroy her relationship with her daughter. But through all of this Boggs never offers anything resembling answers, let alone truisms, for unlike her characters she knows the questions she poses to be unanswerable and their the discovery of anything will bring with it not knowledge and wisdom but more confusion and more catalysts for further confusion.

Of all of Boggs’ characters, though, it is Loretta, the black middle-aged caretaker of an elderly, somewhat aristocratic white widow Cutie (who will conjure in many Julian’s mother from Flannery O’Connor’s classic “Everything that Rises Must Converge”), who comes to dominate the book both through her reappearances and her stability in navigating multiple worlds, multiple relationships and multiple storylines. Thus it is not surprising that if anyone can escape King and Queen County, a place that “used to be more interesting than it is now,” it should be her, even if that escape is less physical than fantastical. But contained within Loretta is Boggs’ message en masse—hope and an understanding that it is precisely because of its stasis that King and Queen county and its people are interesting, and for Boggs an otherwise overlooked milieu in a forgotten part of a state that strives for sophistication even as it clings to its Confederate heart with compassion and tenderness needs a voice worthy of their station and confusion and resilience. And, as Everett overtly implied by his selection of Mattaponi Queen as the 2010 Bakeless Prize Winner, Boggs is this a new voice with a strong and profound value.

Machine Gun Sonnets

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In a few years, much of the Western World will, for lack of a better word, celebrate the Centennial of The Great War in Europe from 1914-1918, the anniversary of that one round that loosed trillions more and signaled the death knell for societies and cultures once so steeped in the fine notions of romance and art. The First World War has long intrigued scholars in many fields, but one of the most interesting and unifying aspects of the conflict remains its many dichotomies: the way in which the arcane and the modern clashed in a manner that, unto that point in history, had never been seen before. Enter a new world where tactics so lagged behind the technologies of war that dragoons armed with lances and gasmasks charged headlong against entrenched machine gun nests; where the gentlemanly rules of Old World combat, devised by generals still under the illusion that great men, rather than great machines, achieved victory were put out to pasture and left to die; where educated and idealistic young men wrote of mustard gas and aerial bombardment using sonnets and couplets.

The Great War ushered in a unique milieu of poets—educated and romantic, yet fully modern—who, although they endured all the horrors of industrialized and mechanized warfare, retreated to a forms better suited to Tennyson and his Light Brigade to describe it. This amazingly odd juxtaposition carved World War One poetry a definite niche in the collective literary mindset; no other literary moment, for movement would be too strong a word to ascribe to a mere four years whose overall reputation has been solidified by two or three truly notable and highly antithetical figures, has spoken so drastically to two sides of a popular consciousness. Furthermore, the primary figure come to embody this period, Wilfred Owen, only suffered to have his work “discovered” and celebrated during the commemoration of the war’s 50th anniversary, which brought with it a renewed interest in scholarship for both the war and those who wrote during it.

To that end, it can and has been argued that Owen’s place in the pantheon of war poets rests not on the merits of his words or his skill at turning a phrase but because the tenor of his voice fit precisely with an age quickly turning against the idea that war can ever again be glorious or that it ever was an altruistic endeavor in the first place. To imagine a 1960s community of academics and then contemporary poets lauding over the works of Kipling and the once highly celebrated Rupert Brooke, the former capable of such a horrendously puerile take on the actual carnage about to befall the continent:

For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war,
The Hun is at the gate!

and of further asking that one “Face the naked days/In silent fortitude” because

There is but on task for all—
One life for each to give.
Who stands if Freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?

flies in the face of all social mores soon to dominate the landscape of counterculture England and America. Owen, although only five of his poems were published before his death in 1918, stood as the main antithesis to this jingoistic sentiment, and he has since not only come to dominate the conversation of Great War poets, but also managed a place in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, where he rests beside his friend Siegfried Sassoon—another notable poetic dissenter— and, to a lesser extent, the aforementioned Brooke, who at the outset of the war, and even a few years after its cessation, appeared as the poster child for all that was right and good with the young men of the Empire.

But politics and agenda aside, what is rather interesting is the range and scope of First World War poetry, for war poetry has never been a mode of discourse possessing a long shelf life. It is not the thing that complements a sunny afternoon, and while there is a decent tradition in American letters of the war novel, A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line and The Things They Carried all immediately come to mind, these works often arrive long after the final salvo, tend to be imbued with the cult of the author’s persona and to be written from the safety and distance of time, free from the possibility that a sniper bullet might arrest the author mid couplet; whereas the poems of the Great War, for the most part, exist devoid of ego and communicate a collective rather than personal mindset. As Patrick MacGill writes in the final quatrain of “Before the Charge:”

The dead leaves float in the sighing air,
  The darkness moves like a curtain drawn,
A veil which the morning sun will tear
  From the face of death.—We charge at dawn

Together, reads the unwritten and inferable coda; and together we die.

Still, perhaps the solution to this great paradox, that of Great War poetry’s resilience, lies in the simple fact that if World War II was the last “noble war,” then the Great War was the last chivalrous one, for no other modern conflict possesses the same aura of romance that ironically informs a three and a half year stalemate, where men smeared with mud lived amongst vermin and dead bodies in glorified holes in the ground while suffering exposure to the capricious weather known to suddenly befall Western Europe. In essence, World War One poetry is both the merging of art and suffering at its highest form and a controlled, packaged image of it. Through a masterful slight of hand and a brilliant bit of marketing on the part of those in literary offices away from the moonscapes of the Marne and Ypres, our popular consciousness has acquiesced to transform the craven hell of a No-Man’s-Land ripe with corpses splayed like scarecrows on barbed wire into “We are the dead. Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/Loved and were loved, and now we lie/In Flanders fields,” which gives the impression that these Belgian poppy fields of John McCrae might not be that bad of a place after all.

However, in their own strange way, these poets and their poems would have served as a form of reportage for those back home. In the days before twenty-four hour news networks and instantaneous headlines, where radio was in its infancy and print served as the primary mechanism for disseminating information, to read a poem from a lad in a trench alongside the “hard reporting” from Verdun or the Somme would not have seemed out of the ordinary or a mixing of two, now distinctly different media. In fact, it would have been the poem that carried a greater weight, since it was offered by a primary source, one whose heart was both loyal to the Crown and yet burdened with the terrible weight of service to it. The warring poet, therefore, easily represented the very best the Empire had to offer because what cannot be forgotten is the social fabric that enabled such a war to take place and for it to be populated with a relatively erudite—by historical and possibly even modern standards—average fighting man who would have benefited from the recent schooling reforms instituted under the reign of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Much of this learning would have centered around an understanding of literature in a national context, poems which, according to Elizabeth A. Marsland in The Nation’s Cause: French, English and German Poetry of the First World War, were “the nation’s treasury of patriotic and heroic poems.” Thus it dovetails that by August 1914 a generation of young men educated on Byron, who himself went off to an ignoble yet glorious death in Greece, should not aspire to a similar end.

The poet martyr or, as George Walter calls it in his introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry the “Brooke Myth,” born through the death of Brooke (who ironically never saw action on the Western Front, instead dying of blood poisoning in the Aegean) relies on the trope of “that selfless young literary patriot who heeded his country’s call, only to die tragically and heroically when his promise seemed about to be fulfilled.” This early 20th Century interpretation of the tragic hero came to serve as foundation for an aesthetic disseminated to a market eager to read the massive outpouring of war poetry coming from the trenches of France, as well as serving as a means by which, in the early stages of the war, members of the media and the government could guide the national morale and sustain the recruitment of the troop levels needed to continuously refill ever thinning ranks.

It is this ideal, this myth of the lyric warrior, that strikes to the heart of Great War poetry, which even during its 1960s resurgence never jettisoned the notion of the poetic martyr but reappropriated it to one better suited to an evolving, more realistic social mindset, resulting in a transition from the ‘For God and Country’ mentality of Brooke:

If I should die, think only this of me:
    That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to live, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

to the haunting, humanist reproach of Owen’s famed “Dulce et Decorum est:”

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitten as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

How then, are we to judge the legacy of this literary time period, at once naïve and world-weary? How does it continue to inform a modern consciousness that might easily look back fondly on a time when wars were “good or bad” and enemies were defined? For even after Adorno decried it, both high and popular culture has persisted in looking to the arts for an understanding of the horrific by attempting to render the irrational accessible to the rational mind. Great War poetry serves as just that, a snapshot of a bygone era coming to grips with its misconceptions and imperfections, an example of men trying to communicate sights and sounds beyond comprehension using the only means at their disposal, but to ever imagine our society returning to a space where it would be imaginable for a grunt or Jarhead to compose the “Kandahar Sonnets” and to have them run on the front page of The New York Times or The San Francisco Chronicle is beyond laughable; it is absurd, especially if they should carry even the slightest hint of anything resembling patriotism. The war poem is obsolete in a world become too cynical for such an item, too intelligent to buy into such a jingoistic cliché. Or might it just be a blatant apathy, one born from a glorious remove, both physical and psychological, from all aspects of Operation Iraqi Freedom or of an Afghanistan Campaign being fought by faceless men in fatigues, who hump through the dusty foothills of the Hindu Kush remembered, as people, only by the loved ones or close friends stateside who anticipate their return.

Even in its most ignorant form, the poems of the Great War possess a legitimacy absent from the similar artistic pursuits today, which tend to be relegated to the back lots of Hollywood and undertaken by actors whose true knowledge of conflict comes from however much they might absorb from the technical advisor brought on set to guarantee “authenticity.” Instead, what these poems of the Great War offer is an immediacy, for they are not prey to the trickery of memories sulking in a truth distorted, no matter how slightly. Today, with nearly a century behind them, we allow the works of Owen and Sassoon and Brooke to masquerade as art, as historical iconography, but the idea and legacy of Great War Poetry, and of its serialization in major newspapers during the actual maneuvers on the Western Front, serves as a sobering reminder that war is fought by human beings. In their worst forms, the Great War Poems are not an apology for fighting, nor are they at their best calls for its cessation. Rather, they are evidence that even a human being who holds a gun and has been trained to kill is capable of intelligent and philosophical thought, perhaps even more capable than those who sit safely at home and examine them.

Brain Waves: Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness

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One of the major problems with literary awards, especially those that take place overseas, is that they tend to be winner-take-all propositions in which the champions, riding high on their recent laurels, come sweeping across the Atlantic ready to reap the benefits of the newfound attention being paid to them by the American market. And while this often signals a boon for the victor, only later will the others—the truly lucky ones—slink over, forced, however appropriately, to trudge about in the shadow of their Man Booker or Costa Prize Winning forebears, and by this time, unless there’s the potential for contention—think the 2008 Booker White Tiger/Northern Clemency debate—whatever excitement their accolades might have garnered for them in the American press has dissipated. No one gives a welcome parade for the runner-up.

Thus, despite having been a finalist for the Booker, Orange, Guardian First Book and Betty Trask Prizes, it is unheralded and in the gigantic shadows cast by Hilary Mantle’s all-conquering, historical epic Wolf Hall and Ian McEwan’s latest, Solar, that Samantha Harvey and her debut novel, The Wilderness, are poised to enter the American literary scene. Unlike its baroque counterparts, The Wilderness is a subtle, a quiet book whose American cover—a tea cup set amongst a row of mossy stone crags—gives little evidence as to the masterpiece lying within it.

From The Wilderness’s bravura opening, recounted from the navigation seat of an old bi-plane soaring to dizzying heights, Harvey outlines the trajectory of all that is to follow:

In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, there are a number of episodes that float with striking buoyancy to the surface. There is no sensible order to them, nor connection between them. He keeps his eyes on the ground below him, strange since once he would have turned his attention to the horizon or the sky above, relishing the sheer size of it all. Now he seeks out miniatures with the hope of finding comfort in them.

This is a novel heavy with the exploration of the minute, seemingly innocuous and uneventful moments that pass us by while we are busy waiting for something extraordinary to happen. Detail, and the flourishes of it, abound in The Wilderness. There is no minimalism here. Harvey is a writer unafraid of prose, one willing to write in a manner reminiscent of early Henry James, yet her sentences lack the attention to showmanship that occasionally superseded and hindered James’s equally obtuse narratives, and it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Harvey might be the best pure English language stylist to arrive on American shores since John Banville, whose 2005 Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea, The Wilderness will at times recall.

Ultimately Harvey’s decision to revel in the small is a wise one, for it is only through exactitude and attention to minutia that it is possible for The Wilderness’ third-person narration, which remains firmly grounded in the tenets of psychological realism, to recount the life of Jacob (Jake) Jameson, whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease. In a way, Jake, a widower with an alcoholic son in prison for larceny, is a Job-like character, though one who lacks a God capable of restoring all His whim has seen fit to take away. The son of an Austrian Jewish mother who emigrated to England before the Second World War, Jake is an architect and a pragmatist both in love with and haunted by the theory entropy, with the need to construct, to build something in order that he might make his mark on the world, leave tangible evidence as to his presence on earth. He is obsessed with the “lack,” by the notion that he, too, will ultimately disappear the way his mother’s family did and that, when he is gone, there will be no one left to remember him.

Because of the nature of its protagonist, The Wilderness is concerned less with plot than with how to communicate the story of Jake’s life through the ever shifting and mutating memories that flash through his mind. These memories constantly fade in and out of focus, and Harvey’s play with perception and the subversion of it is akin to the way a doctor might purposefully impair one’s vision when checking for flaws in eyesight. What appears at one moment as incontrovertible fact is later shrouded in uncertainty. What seems as though it must, for all logical purposes, be the rambles of an atrophying mind, is later substantiated. In the end, our truths come only from the pieces we are able to assemble and corroborate from the brief anecdotes and phrases offered by those once close and now nearly forgotten friends who lay on the periphery of Jake’s world.

Entropy, or the idea of it, is central to Harvey’s narrative. No matter how many things we build in a lifetime “nature’s fingers unpick as if trying to leave things as they would be if humans never existed.” Harvey’s world is a fatalistic one, a place where, thinks Jake, “One must always fight back, not in the hopes of winning but just to delay the moment of losing.” For Jake, “it is not the happiness of a memory that he is looking for, it is the memory itself; the taste and touch of it, and the proof it brings of himself,” yet, even in his dementia, he understands that it is memory that holds the power “to make a shattered dream come true.” His need is to manage somehow to retain his possession of these streams of stories—his story—the “myth upon myth, tangling with myth, myth becoming fact, fact becoming fiction,” because without them, there is nothing to legitimize him, and all he desires is “to appropriate a place before leaving, just to affirm that it was indeed him leaving, and not him being expelled.” Because, even when everything is unraveling, we still possess the distinctly human desire to be in control.

The Wilderness is a Russian doll of themes and tropes, as Harvey concerns herself not only with the story but also with the metaphysical essence of self, with construction of religion, human morality, death and love in both its mythological and cruelly human nature. The image of Jake as architect continually reappears throughout The Wilderness, as he is someone who, both metaphorically and figuratively, is obsessed with the duality between creation and destruction, “A see-saw, a tide, life, death, poetically tilting from one pole to the other. And yet this so-called poetry has created nothing, or little, he can now put his name to.” For Harvey, memory, the illusion of the truth we create, is a nebulous thing, and the stories told, the religions, traditions and customs practiced are all, in their own way, nothing more than an overt way to define the self. Still, what Harvey seems most concerned with is not the building of the mythology, but with the deconstruction of it, with examining what happens when the illusion falls apart, when the same mind that has been integral to the conception of one’s own space in the world rebels and no longer will allow one to linger in the comfort of that created world.

Moreover, Harvey should not only be applauded for her ability to subtly espouse a philosophy of life but also for the way she constructs The Wilderness, which does not simply start sharply and then fall into disarray as Jake’s brain unravels, but instead possesses a beautiful fluidity; scenes bleed back into themselves, shift and morph, yet all the while Harvey maintains such control of the narrative that, even in the most opaque of moments, (and there are many places where a lesser writer would have lost the reader completely) one is confident they will reemerge from the depth and darkness of the forest to rediscover the path they strayed from not so long ago. All events, no matter how large or small, how clear or opaque, feel completely organic, as though they can only happen, must only happen at this particular moment in time. For Harvey presents characters trapped inside cages of their own making, ones whose bars result from all of the little, seemingly innocuous decisions compiled over the course of a lifetime.

One must, however, be forewarned that The Wilderness is not a book to be taken on lightly. It challenges the reader, makes demands of them and requires a significant investment of both emotion and attention for one to truly appreciate all that Harvey has managed to pull off here. And because of this, the most fulfilling aspects of The Wilderness also tend to be its most haunting. The moments when the reader finally makes the connections, connects the dots between the odd assortment of details—a zoo, a cherry tree, a yellow dress, a glass house— that pepper the book and that eventually come together to create a poignant, heartbreaking and mesmerizingly beautiful portrait of a man desperately trying to reclaim his sense of self are, literally, breathtaking.

In The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey shows us, in the truest sense, what it means to be human, to live, to love and to lose. How to, as Jake muses, “be small.” To understand “that an individual is an extremely small thing of small pursuits, that the world is sometimes background, sometimes foreground, depending on how big one feels but inevitably… one is small whether one feels it or not.” It is a novel about how each breath is, unromantically, one exhalation closer to the grave, and that our choices for nostalgia, “that last refuge of the old,” as Jake terms it, define a present need in us and uncover, through our melancholy reflection, that which we crave presently. It is about how to truly be alone in the world and at the same time a celebration of the many levels of human relationship. It is, quite succinctly, a true piece of great art.

Millennium Bridge: John Jodzio’s If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home

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With John Jodzio’s If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home, Replacement Press, whose mission statement declares their reason for existence being a belief that “the next generation, our generation (Gen Y, Millennials) has not just something to say, but brilliant writers to say it,” boldly announces its arrival to the current Indie Lit scene. And though at 36 Jodzio falls at the far end of the Millennial spectrum, his work nonetheless dovetails with the majority of the tenets espoused by Andrew and Sarah De Young, Replacement Press’s founding duo.

If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home, which contains work previously featured in a wide range of literary magazines and journals, most notably The Florida Review, One Story and Opium, consist of 21 pieces crocheted together to form an intricate lattice of tales. Jodzio’s prose recalls the stylings of Ann Beattie and Lorrie Moore, yet If You Lived Here takes what is familiar to both and injects it with a contemporary freshness. There is nothing stale here. Jodzio’s writing is vigorous, sparse and pointed, yet beautiful. Each new sentence seems to jump from the final word of the former, creating a veritable leapfrog effect that pulls the reader through stories possessing a powerful sense of urgency. These are tales that must be read, and must be read now.

From the opening story, “The Bog Body,” where two boys prospecting for golf balls in a wetland adjacent to a golf course discover an excellently preserved young woman clad in a “blazer or something that held a shitload of buttons on it… a long skirt, and a pair of boots with a large heal,” Jodzio trains the reader to expect a world a world just left of center, for his universe is fractured. The bog woman is most likely one of the many “whores and heathens strung up by the locals because they didn’t believe in the right God. Or because they didn’t believe in God the right way,” an appropriate tongue-in-cheek introduction to a book filled with eccentrics who all seem to possess some odd neurosis—many of his characters have a fascination with swallowing objects—and nearly every story seems to contain someone rendered motherless by either death or divorce, which at times seems as much a throwaway detail as it does a tacit explanation for the character’s current mental state and behavior.

Death, or the approach of it, abounds in If You Lived Here, yet the collection is far from morbid, and is, in fact, quite funny, as Jodzio’s dark wit and pithy humor offer a pitch-perfect balance to scenes that, in the hands of a lesser writer, would verge on the sentimental, the cliché or the plain mean. Jodzio’s reality is a cruel one, but he is not a writer who revels in this cruelty; rather he respects his characters, and manages to find beauty in even the most dire moments, to elicit empathy towards some of the most frigid beings imaginable.

In “The Egg,” Jodzio presents a spoiled young boy, Scott, whose father is a wealthy currency trader and whose mother and older brother have both died. Early on, Scott discovers a button under his father’s desk that, when pressed, causes a phone to ring. He does this repeatedly, amazed at how there is no one on the other end of the line. And while at times the rather petulant Scott, who spends most of the story lighting things on fire, aimlessly paddling around the marshes of a heron preserve and terrorizing his nanny, Rosarita, seems repulsive to readers, Jodzio offers scene after scene in which the boy’s attempt to speak with his father is curtailed by the sudden ringing of the phone and the father’s faux-apologetic “Sorry Champ, but I’ve got to take this.”

Jodzio’s work is an eclectic mix. If You Lived Here is composed both of vignettes—subtle snapshots of consciousness—and long, winding tales rich with layers of complexity. And despite belonging to a generation of writers that, in the past, has shown itself in love with snarky, ironic storytelling saturated with manufactured ennui, If You Lived Here is honest and unafraid to dip into emotionality. His voices are confident, and Jodzio possesses an uncanny ability to conjure the perfect image, however odd or offbeat it might first appear, to paint the moment at hand. In “Inventory,” he succinctly describes a character’s bed-head as looking “like when a helicopter comes down suddenly in high grass, pushed out in spots, flattened down in others.”

There is no solipsistic musing in Jodzio, no dorm-room philosophizing, no attempts at waxing poetic. Only the grit and the dirt. The thin veneer that attempts to mask the painful truth that the characters of his world are horrifyingly and utterly alone.

“Gravity,” a second person story that takes as its subject a man obsessed with dropping coins on those below the window of his 18th story office, follows the rehashing of the volatile and quasi-violent sex-life between him and his wife Jeannie, who “liked sex from high places. On top of tables, suspended over staircases,” and who, after “You,” in a crazed moment of irrationality, dropped her, said “That was really hot,” and then demanded “You” do it again.

The choice of the second person for “Gravity” is an odd one, since the trapping of the reader in the character’s consciousness doesn’t necessarily offer anything that an “I” narrator couldn’t give it, but Jodzio navigates masterfully through the story. From the inception of “You’s” dropping of Jeannie to his ultimate refusal to continue, Jodzio offers only the slightest hints as to the cause of Jeannie’s current bedridden state, until the pressure is released in the sudden outpouring, “Sometimes at night though, lying in bed, you can’t get the thought of her with that other man out of your head, the science teacher from her school, the one who you met at the hospital… the one who was with her when she fell that last time and didn’t get up.”

Despite all of its merits, though, If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home is not without its flaws. Its arrangement is a bit muddled. The book could easily jettison a few of its shorter pieces, as these vignettes do little to advance the overall stature of the collection and almost pull attention away from their more deserving companions. Moreover, the placing of “Flight Path,” the most epic of all If You Lived Here’s stories, and arguably the strongest, most telling example of Jodzio’s ability as a writer, second sets the bar of expectation at a level that the subsequent pieces flirt with, but which they never quite achieve. Because often, like the father in “The Egg,” Jodzio truncates his stories too quickly, shies away from the big moment and fails to cash in on the intricate, powerful and tense situations he’s crafted, which leaves the reader to feel as though they’ve been allowed to preview the inner most sanctums of his characters lives, but that the shades have been drawn on them just when the most important or transitional moment of that life is about to occur.

Perhaps that is his intention, yet it feels coy, a trick, an unfulfilled promise since, as is the case in “Flight Paths,” when Jodzio allows his stories room to breathe and follows them down the quirky, compelling and darkly humorous trail they blaze, he soars brilliantly. All of this leaves one to wonder what an already solid collection would be if Jodzio allowed each of his stories the scope, time and attention that “Flight Paths” received. Still, this is an impressive debut from a writer commanding the world take note of his presence, one who, if Replacement Press has their way, will be at the head of a line of new voices ready to usher in a vibrant and new literary milieu.