A Compendium of the Hapless (Stories) by Brian Ames

by Zachary Houle

8 February 2005


Small Press, Big Ambition

Jackie Corley and Brian Ames might not be two names meaning much to the average reader, but those interested in taking chances in the small press scene should definitely keep tabs on these up-and-comers. For those not in the know, Corley is a twentysomething would-be novelist and newspaper reporter from Middletown, New Jersey, not to mention the publisher of Word Riot Press and an online literary magazine that begat the publishing concern in 2002, Wordriot.org.

Ames, on the other hand, is a Missouri-based author of two previous short story collections through Virginia’s tiny Pocol Press: Smoke Follows Beauty (2002) and Head Full of Traffic (2004). He also is currently one of the fiction editors at Wordriot.org, and naturally the author of this book of short stories up for review.

cover art


Brian Ames

A Compendium of the Hapless (stories)

(Word Riot Press)

A word of disclosure here: the publishing world can be a small place at times, and Word Riot has actually published a couple of my short stories in the past. (Though it should be said that Ms. Corley was the one to approach me about reviewing this book after reading my bio on her site—not the other way around.) Given that this is small press is seemingly being run from her credit card account, I agreed to take a look, if only to possibly use this as a way to also talk up a number of other ambitious Web litzines and micro-presses challenging the status quo in the literary world. You know, online magazines like Mcsweenys.net, Thievesjargon.com, Gorillamag.com and—my favorite, title-wise—Girlswithinsurance.com.

These sites, and many others like them that are popping up like rabbits all the time, should be commended if only for shaking things up a little bit and stealing from some literary thunder from the likes of, say, The Paris Review. By all means, I’d encourage as many readers as possible to go check these litzines out and support them, even if it’s only an investment in time. I’m sure other writers working in the trenches would appreciate it, and I can honestly say you might be surprised at the quality some of these hidden corners of the Web have to offer up.

Back to the business at hand: Where Eighty-Sixed really piqued my interest is that it has received fairly glowing reviews from such mainstream publications as Booklist and Publishers Weekly, which is a phenomenal achievement coming from such a tiny, bedroom publisher. (The book seems to be doing quite well on Amazon.com, too, though one has to be careful about using it as any sort of scientific yardstick for how well a book is doing. However, Eighty-Sixed was hovering around No. 450,000 when I last checked, which is almost unheard of for a book from a press of this size.)

Stripping away all of these achievements, what about Eighty-Sixed as a literary entity in itself? Well, if you were to judge this book on its cover, you could say that it’s extremely lovingly well put together for a small press item, which may conversely explain its relative success. My girlfriend even commented upon its slickness when she saw this book on lying on top of one of our bedroom dressers for the first time, without any prior knowledge of the publisher in question.

Once you get past the cover and first impressions, the secondary impressions are just as remarkable. I have to say that whoever did the proofreading did an outstanding job: The book is remarkably glitch-free in the spelling and grammar departments. This collection really seems to be one of those labor of love projects that had love and labor go into it in equal measure, which, believe me, is something you don’t always encounter. Granted, some of the graphic design is a little busy, and the book’s overall font is perhaps a tad too small for my liking; that said, though, for a small press item this is one of the most professionally put-together books I’ve ever looked at. And this is worth noting, for there are a lot of small presses out there who couldn’t give a you-know-what about the tiny details.

As for the writing, Ames’ style is probably best described as being along the same lines of a Charles Bukowski or Raymond Carver in that he writes concise slice-of-life vignettes about men—usually down-on-their-luck mechanics, lumbermen, snowplow operators and bar hands—who, completely obliviously to the world around them, are about to step into their own figurative bear traps. However, a fair amount of these stories, centering as they usually do around the act of big game hunting, have an adventure element to them that reminds me a bit of Jack London, if not a few gritty genre fiction writers mining the mystery or horror genres right now. (Canada’s Edo van Belkom comes to mind. So does Chuck Palahniuk.) I’ll be frank: This sort of writing either turns your crank, or it doesn’t, and I’m not usually a big fan of this kind of brute man fiction. That said, the writing is so well accomplished, for the most part, that once I got into many of these stories, I really didn’t care that they were about manly men.

Now, one would be tempted to think that this being Ames’ third short-story collection in three years—one running roughly 75,000 words at that—there’d be some flotsam and jetsam. Well, I won’t lie: A few of the 21 stories miss the mark. For instance, “Have Mercy on the House of Quek” is a fun title to say five times fast, but seems to read more as an in-joke than anything else. I’m not sure I get the point about “Arbor Day”, either, which is a meandering story about birds nests and trees that is oddly placed second in the running line-up. Still, there are a lot of gems in the bullpen here, including “Monocle,” a touching piece about a one-eyed man suffering from a humiliating rejection at the altar, and “Ajax the God,” which is a compelling update on Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, except set in the Pacific Northwest and involving the pursuit of big game instead of fish.

In short, if you’re interested in voices working their craft from the margins and want to bypass what the big publishing houses are racing to put out—novels with some variation of the word “code” in their titles, more or less—you really can’t go wrong checking Word Riot Press and Eighty-Sixed out. According to the publisher’s Web site, there’s at least another new book coming in the hopper this spring, not to mention the fact that there’s a growing back catalogue already on tap as well - which is really not bad for someone just out of university and doing this press on the side.

If Jackie Corley, Brian Ames and company can keep up the level of detail and love in writing, designing and printing their books, I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that some readers might soon be calling Word Riot Press the Sub Pop of the book world. Perhaps, Eighty-Sixed could even very well become this press’ Bleach. It’s an exciting thought. It would mean, too, that there’s a book-world equivalent of such groundbreaking albums as Doolittle, Zen Arcade or Loveless out there from other independent presses, and that things are about to get changed-up for the better in the rather staid, all-too-safe world of fiction publishing. Well, to quote one indie band from yesteryear, “I caaaaaan’t hard-ly wait.” And I hope, as a writer and lover of books, that you can’t either.

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