Scoundrels Among Us by Darrin Doyle – Book Review

By Ben Arzate

Scoundrels Among Us is a collection of 29 stories covering a wide berth of genres and styles. There are realist stories, metafictional narratives, dark humor and pieces consisting only of dialogue.

Several of the stories take the form of a sort of bent fairy tale, such as the titular story. Five “scoundrels” enter a town and storm into the Mayor’s office. The leader of the scoundrels, calling himself “Cunt,” proceeds to interrogate the Mayor about his name and murder the other scoundrels when they interrupt. This darkly humorous tale about the nature of names encapsulates what most of the stories are like. They’re often absurd, philosophical and very funny.

Another story in this vein is “Dangling Joe.” A man suddenly appears floating above a city. Numerous attempts to pull him to the ground fail as his body always jerks away from anything that tries to grab it. However, he seems unperturbed about floating in the sky.

This sets off a debate that this man, nicknamed Dangling Joe, is either some kind threat or messiah. Because Dangling Joe refuses to speak, he becomes a target both of scorn and deep love. Eventually, however, people get tired of him because all he does is dangle over the city.

This seems exactly how the news cycle functions in modern times. An event is made out to be the biggest event of all-time, much ado is made about picking sides on the issue, then it’s quickly forgotten for the next thing.

Many of the stories have a metafictional aspect to them. This is especially true in what’s probably my favorite story in the collection, “If The Invisible Man Dies and Nobody Sees It, Does He Really Die?” The story is written as a first draft of itself with crossed-out sentences, hand-written notes, and corrections in the margins.

The story is about an amateur boxer, also the one writing the story, who is sleeping with the wife of a man who mysteriously becomes invisible. The invisible man finds out but encourages them to continue their affair. Eventually, the boxer tires of the invisible man using his state to trick and harass him, and beats him possibly to death. In the notes, we see the narrator’s amateurish attempts at being poetic, his attempts to make himself look better, and his uncertainty in even telling his story.

D.T. Myse’s Cold Blood from a Scorched Cat: Sweet Whiskers in the Grip of Death” is written in the form of a review of a book. The book reviewer spends an unusual amount of time focusing on things like how the book is shaped, its design, and how it smells and reveals they aren’t even able to retain the actual contents of the book. Eventually, the reviewer realizes that the book is just a carrier for something horrible.

Slice of Moon” is one of the realist stories and one of the most compelling “shaggy dog stories” that I can recall reading. A man named Bernie who is anti-social and unmarried suddenly has a daughter seemingly out of nowhere. Everyone in his small town suspects that he’s kidnapped the child but nothing seems to prove that either way. The story answers none of the questions it raises about this strange character or his mysterious daughter but remains an entertaining and thought-provoking piece.

Scoundrels Among Us is an excellent collection full of funny, fascinating, and unusual stories. Despite having a wide variety of genres ranging from realist, to horror, to metafiction, it still reads as a coherent whole with Darrin Doyle’s voice. If you enjoy short stories, I highly recommend this collection.

The Unreprinted: The Consumer by M. Gira

by Ben Arzate

Welcome back to The Unreprinted wherein out-of-print books of every genre are spotlighted, dissected and, in some rare cases, eviscerated. Previously, we found ourselves in the fetishistic fray with Tim Lucas’s sublime novel Throat Sockets. Today’s installment finds Ben Arzate delving into the weird and exotic short stories of artist/musician Michael Gira.

Michael Gira is best known as the front man for the confrontational experimental rock band Swans. I personally became familiar with him through the band he formed when Swans broke up around the turn of the century, Angels of Light.

In addition to songs, Gira has also dabbled in writing short stories. His first collection of short stories, The Consumer, was published in 1995 through Henry Rollins’s 2.13.16 press. Now out of print, used copies go for some very hefty prices online.

The Consumer is divided into two parts. The first part, called “The Consumer,” consists of short stories written between 1993 and 1994. The second part, called “Various Traps, Some Weaknesses, Etc.” consists of pieces written between 1983 and 1986 and is mostly prose poems, flash fiction, and vignettes.

The sound of the Swans music is dark, brooding, and, especially in the earlier releases, harsh, abrasive, and violent. Gira’s fiction is no different. The reader is immediately hit with this in the very first story, “Empathy.”

A man living in a dilapidated house welcomes his sister into his home after she returns from an asylum. We learn that she’d been incarcerated for murdering their parents and she seems no better after her stay. He suspects that she simply wandered out. Despite that, he’s happy to see her and begins an incestuous relationship her, nailing his doors shut to keep the outside world out.

A number of the themes throughout the book are established here. Abjection as a means of escape, sexual deviancy, loss of identity, and the urban decay of Los Angeles. Almost all the stories either explicitly or are implied to take place in L.A. and Gira’s L.A. is like a post-apocalyptic hellscape. It’s full of horrible, broken people, everything about the city has decayed away, and there seems to be little hope for any sort of recovery.

This is especially present in the story “The Young Man Who Hid His Body Inside A Horse, or, My Vulvic Los Angeles.” A young speed freak murders his drug dealer and steals his money and speed. He takes the cash and drugs and rents a squalid room where he hides away and sniffs the speed endlessly. Soon, a massive riot breaks out which results in horses from a nearby farm rushing into the city. In his tweaked state, he kills one of the horses and hides in its guts for protection.

This story reads to me like a mix of Hubert Selby Jr. and Samuel Beckett. The former for its portrayal of the people on the lowest rung of society and the latter for its absurd and intentionally “pointless” narrative. The speed freak draws into himself more and more to deal with his surroundings and addiction. Eventually, he returns to the closet thing to a womb he can find.

The semi-titular story, “The Consumer, Rotting Pig,” is told from the perspective of an incredibly obese man obsessed with the degeneration of his own body, with growing fatter, and with the media. There is some pitch black humor here as he goes into detail about his sexual fantasies, which involves things like cutting out a rock star’s heart and using it as an “Acujack” (a masturbation toy).

The story is divided into five parts. The first part introduces Rotting Pig and his obsessions. The other four parts are notes written by him and go into what would be his ideal life, how he learned to speak, his sexual desires, and who he believes himself to have once been.

“My Prescription for Happiness” is the most fascinating part to me. Here, Rotting Pig expounds on what his ideal life would be. He imagines himself suspended in a vat of warm human blood, breathing and eating through tubes, and his eyelids replaced by small screens that transmit images directly into his eyes. His feces and urine would be allowed to fill the tank until he floated to the top and died.

Rotting Pig wants nothing but to consume, being nothing but a lifeless consumer until he rots away for good. This parallels a number of the lyrics themes on the debut Swans album, Filth. Consuming and satisfying base desires until it results in self-destruction.

The story I found most disturbing is “The Coward (II).” A drunk lives with his brother, sister-in-law, and their daughter with no direction in life. He believes his niece may actually be his daughter as he had slept with his sister-in-law around the time she would have been conceived. Despite this, he still neglects taking care of her, resulting in the young girl being raped in her own home.

This story shows a deep disgust both with the people who actively cause harm and those who stand by and allow it to happen, but it doesn’t feel preachy or moralizing. It’s simply an observation, and an extremely disquieting one at that.

“The Ideal Worker,” a prose poem, satirizes the Protestant work ethic by portraying a husk of a man who wants to be nothing but a pliable puppet at work because of his self-hatred. I can only imagine how shitty Gira’s job was when he wrote this.

“A Trap” is a flash fiction piece in a similar vein about a person seeking personal obliteration. A woman calls random men asking them to come over and have sex with her. When one agrees, she resists hoping to make him get violent with her. Instead, he loses his erection and leaves, leaving her frustrated and still wishing for obliteration through violent sex.

The Consumer is a dark and disturbing read, but an incredibly poetic and amazingly crafted one. The book is incredibly rare, but worth tracking down. People who are already fans of Swans should certainly read this, but I also highly recommend this to anyone seeking well-written transgressive literature.

A Short Book Review of a Short Book: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye

Review by Zakary McGaha

3.5/5 stars.

This is a stellar collection of short stories and flash from one of indie lit’s most enthusiastic readers/reviewers. Every story has something to like about it, but some definitely stick out more than others.

The style of prose is on the minimalistic side of things, which I uniformly loathe, but this was one of the rare examples where it worked for me. The compactness made each story have a constant jabbing effect.

“The Country Musician” stood out as one that led to multiple things you could read into it. It’s also probably my favorite. It captured perfectly that feeling you get as an artist when you realize there’s an art industry out there, but to get into it, and get that sweet dough, you’ve got to give up a lot of dignity.

“The Soda” stood out as my favorite among the short, jokey stories. Something about this one was wildly entertaining and had me laughing. It also taught me a great lesson: never underestimate the multitude of ways soda-pop can fuck you up.

“Violent Bitch Hitomi” also stood out, as it could have been an awesome novella. It was very action-driven, so I couldn’t help imagine it as a bloody comic-book.

Some of the stories didn’t stick out as well, though, but that’s common with every collection. When  picking up this collection, readers should expect to get some jabs of strangeness and humor, added in with some insight and meaning here and there. Refreshingly, none of the stories are shoving themes down your throat, and the ones that do have some things to say do so in a way that’s organic and fitting with the story, showing skill on Arzate’s part.

Even the stories that didn’t leave any impression on me had good things about them: they’re all delightfully weird and idiosyncratic in their own way. I would say that the best way to read this collection is one story at a time: perhaps one a day. It’s meant to inject weirdness into your day, but in short doses.

In other words, don’t overdose: come to this book a little at a time, and sometimes you’ll find yourself amused, other times you’ll find yourself more engrossed (such as with stories like “The Country Musician”).

On a side note, the cover is badass, so buy this as a paperback.