Of Carnage and Cartoons
"There's got to be an explanation," Alex says. "Nothing dies without reason."
"That's not true," Simon summons the courage to say. "They can and they do."
"The Night Soil Man"
While reading Jim Ruland's debut short story collection, Big Lonesome, some song lyrics kept running through my head. They're from Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant," which among other things recounts his Vietnam era experience at an Army induction center where he's sequestered in a group of those who have arrest records (Arlo's heinous crime is littering.) He finds himself sitting on a bench with "all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly-looking people ... there were mother-rapers ... father-stabbers ... father-rapers sitting right there on the bench with me..." In another part of the song, he describes his facetious interview with the Army psychiatrist: "Shrink, I wanna kill! I wanna kill! I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth! Eat dead, burnt bodies! I mean: kill! Kill!"
Reading Big Lonesome, the unsuspecting and innocent reader finds himself for 189 pages in the dubious company of all kinds of meanest, nastiest, ugliest-looking people imaginable. The characters that have emerged from the rather bent and miscreant mind of Ruland are a murderous, treacherous, heartless, soulless, and cruel crowd who might as well add to their long list of sins and offences, father-raping. (Jim, how did you miss that one?) Suffice it to say that the only character with a shred of dignity and decency is a zoo elephant who has the good sense to lie down and die rather than live in the hellish horror of the narrative.
A familiar name in popular journals featuring cutting edge stories by young writers, Ruland takes cutting edge quite literally. The carnage is considerable and the bodies, animal and human, pile up pretty quickly in this 13-story volume. And even if the reader is lucky and no one or no thing winds up a bleedy heap, Ruland's work throbs like a thrombotic blood vein with the potential for violence, physical or psychological, to erupt at any moment. His characters are loose cannons, all of them: losers, lowlifes, misfits, sociopaths, racketeers, underworld hit men, abusers, misogynists, and mentally ill children who have way too much access to sharp objects. Somebody or something is bound to get hurt here, one way or another.
To say the book is disturbing would be putting it mildly, all the more so because of the almost off-handed, oh-well style in which it's handled. A kid saws the family cat's head off with a carving knife. Another kid cracks his little sister's skull open so he can implant her brain in his action toy and stuffs his sibling's body in the toy chest where no one will find it. One story is set in a slaughterhouse; the main character ends up gutting someone like a cow and burning the organs while the victim watches, whimpers and slowly dies. Another piece features the senseless and methodical massacre of zoo animals.
I won't belabor the point; you get the picture. We hear the same sort of stuff on the evening news and tabloid TV; we and/or our kids make a pastime out of it with videogames; Hollywood makes entertainment (and a handsome profit) out of it. We are so surrounded by violence in our culture that we are in serious danger of becoming inured to it. It has ceased to be sensational or shocking anymore; it's now the status quo and we're getting disconcertingly comfortable with it.
Ruland's assessment of human nature is bleak and his prognosis hopeless. There are no epiphanies for his characters, and no sympathy for victimizer or even the victim. Nobody's a 'good guy.' Their vile pasts are forever creeping up on them and no matter what happens to them, they never learn from their mistakes, as Ruland point-blank states in a couple of stories.
Though thoroughly awful, the characters are eerily familiar -- they are Everyman gone irreparably awry, broken people who can't be fixed and are fast slipping through the cracks of society into a seemingly bottomless abyss of depravity. They don't even have enough sense of decency or respect left in them to feel despair at their terrible falls from grace or remorse over the appalling things they do. They are walking examples of Socrates' dictum about the unexamined life not being worth living. Beneath his clever camouflage of trendy, go-to-hell coolness, Ruland is a philosopher decrying our dehumanization and depersonalization -- and a very angry young man who just won't quit rubbing our noses in it. But this is exactly what reader might expect from a writer who is a self-proclaimed punk and anti-establishmentarian, and he's doing his job very well indeed.
Big Lonesome reflects Ruland's eclectic interests in the 'noir' genre of hard-boiled detective stories, spaghetti Westerns, historical fiction and cartoon characters, the latter of which do not fare very well in the author's skewed and slightly crazy imagination. Dick Tracy is alternately fat and living on the moon or unfashionable and working in the San Fernando Valley. Popeye is a loathsome reprobate whose secret and sordid life includes getting Olive Oyl hooked on opium and fathering an illegitimate son who is hell-bent on revenge. Little Red Riding Hood becomes Red Cape and a victim of war atrocities in Nazi Germany. The juxtaposition of fractured fairy tales with gritty, graphic crime stories keeps the reader off-balance and a captive in the rather maniacal hands of the author, which is precisely what he intended in compiling this bizarre collection.
Ruland is an exceptionally good writer with the potential to become a truly great one. The best of his stories speak not just to (or of) this generation or culture, but address conundrums that have perplexed humanity since the beginning of time. Despite its distressing animal cruelty flavors, "Night Soil Man" is a haunting and heartbreaking story with an unexpected mystical twist at the end. "Kessler Has No Lucky Pants," which I have written about extensively in a previous PopMatters review of the online fiction anthology, E2Ink, just keeps getting better and better every time I read it. "Brains for Bengo" will stick in your mind whether you want it to or not, as well the strange, troubled characters in "Eastwood." These could easily be the people living in the apartment next to you or the house across the street -- and unless you have a pair of lucky pants (and I sincerely hope you do), they probably are.
Among Ruland's accomplishments are receiving a NEA grant and having an almost rabid following of highly vocal and supportive fans. He is also an editor for The God Particle, an intriguing little online literary journal exploring the gray areas of spirituality. (The publication is currently on hiatus; may it return very soon.) Big Lonesome has been reviewed favorably, though not widely, and praised for its cleverness and humor (the former I can understand but the latter makes me wonder if those reviewers and I actually read the same book.) The publisher, Gorsky Press, is based in Los Angeles and way-cool, putting out edgy literature that garners a strong cult following but not much attention from the mainstream.
Reportedly, Ruland has finished his first novel and is working on more short stories. Should we get the barf bags and body bags ready? Only Jim knows, and he ain't telling...
31 January 2006