Shenanigans! by Joseph Michael Owens (A Review by David Atkinson)

Grey Sparrow Press

100 pgs/$9.99

I’ve heard that by the time Bukowski was really into the swing of things as a writer, he had stopped reading much of anything.  He did not feel that most of what he came across had life; he thought it felt dead.  As such, he couldn’t read it.  I can’t really say for absolute certainty because I didn’t know old Buk’, but I believe he would have felt very differently about the writing in Shenanigans!  If there was ever writing with life, Shenanigans! is it.

In some cases, I mean this quite literally.  The writing in “Contemptibly, A Hair” blasts out of the page with more energy than a hyperactive toddler on meth, though with considerably much more pleasurable results. Consider the opening:

       CONTEMPTIBLY, A HAIR—not one sprouted from Ben Manley’s own largish pores—floats, follicle and all, atop the khaki-colored surface of his steaming cup of white- label coffee, flavored artificially with powdered non-dairy hazelnut creamer, the kind that tends to clump together when introduced to a liquid, rather than dissolve completely, since creamer and powder are two mutually exclusive substances.

However, taking the office-brewed coffee black is simply not an option. The powdered non-dairy hazelnut creamer, in theory, serves to mitigate the inescapable bitterness of the office’s second pot of the morning, one usually brewed by either Madeline Van Lancaster, The Agency’s Senior Director of Human Resources, or Kathy Adkins, Madeline’s personal-slash- personnel assistant, both of whom attempt to cut cost and save—indeed shave—time from the drip-coffee preparation by simply adding new generic grounds to the old generic grounds, thereby reusing both coffee filter and previously-brewed generic grounds to make a “fresh” pot that is both mysteriously 1.5 times stronger and twice as bitter than an average pot of coffee brewed to normal standards.

The resulting liquid is something more like a steaming batch of sub-nuclear swill—a batch in a sense that the mouthful and texture of the second pot has an almost uncanny and chewy quality to it, somewhat reminiscent of runny Malt-O-Meal®— though the batch of Van Lancaster/Adkins-brewed mahogany swill is indisputably less satisfying.

 

As you can see, the prose dances, it spins, it screams.  No really, there is some actual screaming.  In short, it is the language-equivalent of class ten rapids.

However, in other stories I mean the above analysis a bit more figuratively.  In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Lasagna” (one of the most humorous Raymond Carver tributes I’ve ever seen), the prose is certainly lively.  Still, the much more impressive aspect is the way that the emotion seems to pulse with actual, organic life.  The following paragraph illustrates this beautifully:

When I assumed your exasperation was precipitated by my taking the last piece of lasagna while I baked the surrounding noodle medley to an inedible crisp, you were actually telling me you were frustrated with my not having remembered to empty the dishwasher you’d run two days prior, and now—by which I mean, then—dirty dishes were piling up in the sink and had started making the kitchen smell. And you’d've asked me again to empty it, but you know I hate being harangued repeatedly to do things, even if harangued only meant once, and you felt like you were in a no-win situation because I can be just so damn intractable sometimes.

 

Really, all that’s at stake is what Ben and his wife are really arguing about when arguing about eating a pan of mostly-burned lasagna.  However, the way that the things that are unsaid are not said, the way Ben articulates things that his wife doesn’t want him to, the way the words that are there are laid out, it all seems to percolate inside me to cause the exchange of emotions to happen afresh.

In all of the stories, Owens presents a very personalized and human voice that it at times I find touching, self-deprecating, humorous, and always enjoyable.  Just take the following passage from “Ninjas! (…in the Suburbs?)”:

Earlier today I was doing something many average, concerned citizens are apt to do, especially in light of nearby suburban B&E rashes: surveilling, from my back porch, my neighbor’s backyard, in hopes of espying some form of potentially objectionable monkeyshines, while under the guise of pretending I was simply, say, making absolutely certain that their dog—a mostly agreeable, yet kind of rodent-like miniature pincer—was indoors.

 

I can’t read that without both snickering with, and at, the narrator.

The stories in Shenanigans! have that life, that real quality that I always turn to fiction to simulate for me, though that is not always achieved as well as in Shenanigans!  Whether centering on a nunchaku-wielding neighbor, the mistrust between man and his best friend over nail-clipping, or a wedding proposal that leads into buying more than a landlord-approved number of dogs that leads into a parental heart attack that into a personal unknown health threat, these stories bring forth life for me.  Truly, I do not ask for more.

*

David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver.  He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska.  His stories have appeared in “Grey Sparrow,” “Children Churches and Daddies,” “Split Quarterly,” “Cannoli Pie,” “C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,” “Atticus Review,” “Brave Blue Mice,” and “Fine Lines.”  His book reviews have appeared in “Gently Read Literature,” “The Rumpus,” and “All Things Pankish.”  The web site dedicated to his writing can be found at http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.  He currently serves as a reader for “Grey Sparrow” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.

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