There are moments, hours, days in a lifetime that you actually feel like you have gone somewhere to a point on a map that doesn’t exist. That is the power of great writing. You’ve been transported from the mundane species that claimed you at birth into a carnival of characters, exposed, yet wielding a primacy of survival instincts in the midst of the most inane, hellish experiences you could imagine. How exceptional to be obliterated into a landscape that shows humans as we really are with our chronic neuroses that we subvert under a layer of smiles and goodwill: confused, irritable, fearful, bullying, jealous, depressed and then read with fascination as a woman who’s been kidnapped by a serial killer, as haunting as it gets, asks, “Can’t you just hurry this along, cut open some femoral artery? Haven’t you ever watched ER? No one dies from foot burns…”
This is the planet of Julie Innis. I have been lingering over her collection for a while reading and rereading, “Three Squares a Day With Occasional Torture.“ The title alone has described my childhood in seven words, when I’ve been working at it for years. Innis delivers through pathos and humor the absurdity of daily existence.
I am mesmerized by how any bizarre experience we find ourselves bound up in, no matter how rabid finds a way to fit itself into our lives, because if we are anything communally, we are most certainly creatures of habit. An Innis story relays characters that are so familiar that they meld into family members, friends, workmates, neighbors and, most definitely, ourselves. What a ridiculous lot we are. And yet, Innis forfeits any judgment and drives us into the pool of real estate agents, serial killers, summer camp counselors, teacher/student obsessions, a woman having an affair with a fly, cosmetic surgery gone metallurgic. It is a collection of stories that we slide into quite easily like cookie batter into one of those animal molds. We are unable to forget that we are mammals, nor can we hide from it.
In the first story of the collection, “My First Serial Killer,” the narrator is less than impressed by her captor.
“My serial killer can’t commit. His knife blade is dull and raises only faint marks across my skin the way a pencil eraser might- long, pink, but hardly fatal.’That’s the best you can do?’ I taunt despite myself. ‘Not so great a serial killer, huh? Too little practice?’ I had grown tired of his bravado days ago, all his big talk of dismembered bodies buried throughout the suburbs of Cincinnati. ‘Ohio has a long history of being the birthplace of serial killers, he said.'”
Innis takes us into our own inner worlds where we have always been the outsiders. We relate to the girl who connects with goats rather than the humans around her:
“According to Dad, my relationship with the goats was further proof of my susceptibility to demonic possession.
But the goats are my friends, I tried to explain. I was eleven, impressionable. I’d grown up with one of those PlayMobile Farmer in the Dell sets. I didn’t have good barnyard boundaries.”
We can even understand the motivation for collecting voles and the brother and sister who sell their mouse-killing services to neighbors.
“Our business is simple: the voles scare mice from hiding spaces, herding them out to where my brother waits with a Havaheart trap. It’s humane rodent removal, non-toxic, very green. Our voles learn quickly, responding well to kind treatment, frequent rewards of dried apricots, walnuts. The calls flood in. Real estate agents and landlords put us on speed dial.”
And then there are those ‘big picture’ moments when a character sees it all:
“Neither of us had signed on for anything, I want to point out. That’s the way it is with families. You’re born into someone else’s mess, their tics and crannies, their cancers, their travel lusts.”
Innis is a master at creating unprecedented situations with equally inimitable characters and yet as we read on there is nothing strange about a woman having an affair with a fly to spare herself from her cheating husband or a girl who’s been kidnapped by a serial killer and finds him weak and inattentive. We are rooting for these characters and discover a must hardier breed of ourselves in every one of them.
This is a unique collection that is to be savored and read over and over again for inspiration, but more importantly for the enjoyment of Innis’ wit and unrestrained voice.
“Three Squares a Day With Occasional Torture,” is one of those brilliant gems you discover that brings back the color into your cheeks, when for too long, we have languished in the language of the pale ‘I’m serious, everything is fine,’ kind of non-existence. Let Innis bring you back to yourself. You will find your stride in the streets a bit more raucous. Let it rip! Thank you, Julie Innis! Unforgettable.
Meg Tuite’s writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. She is the author of Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, Disparate Pathos (2012) Monkey Puzzle Press, Reverberations (2012) Deadly Chaps Press and has edited and co-authored The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011, stories from her monthly column, Exquisite Quartet published in Used Furniture Review. Her books can be purchased at: http://www.megtuite.com Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.