Happy

[24 July 2002]

By Phoebe Kate Foster

Editor: Bayard
Designer/Publisher: Dan Peyton
Vol. 11, 1998 through Vol. 17, 2002
Published 1 or 2 times a year, $15/issue, $50/four issues

Beyond the Pale: A Happy Retrospective

“Trend? Can we get this word out of the English language, please? Don’t ask me about literary trends. We publish what strikes us as good and interesting. If it makes me think, it’s worth publishing.”
— Bayard, editor of Happy

Many words apply to the small, independent New York-based literary journal Happy. Try, for starters, outrageous. Strange. Shocking. Challenging. Unsettling. Protean. Idiosyncratic. Iconoclastic. Abrasive. Bizarre. Perplexing. Offbeat. Outré. Perverse—don’t stop me now, I’m just getting warmed up here.

One thing, however, it is not: traditional. In any sense of the word.

Oh, and it’s definitely not trendy...at least according to its editor.

The brainchild of seven-time Pushcart Prize-nominated author Bayard and his partner Dan Peyton, Happy, now in its eighth year of publication, goes where no literary journal has gone before, exploring the outer limits of contemporary literature and featuring the works of better and lesser known writers side by side. You’ll find a “concrete poem” next to a short-short about masturbation followed by political satire that’s nestled next to sci-fi written in comics-style beside a story about a talking cockroach. Then you can finish up with a little tale about a jealous child who roasts her obnoxious little sister in the oven a’ la Hansel and Gretel, a hauntingly lyrical piece about an unhappy woman and her garden, a spoof of a catalog ad for underwear, and a chilling portrait of a crazed prostitute who cuts off the penises of clients who are the age her father would be.

In a recent phone interview, I asked Bayard what qualities he looks for in submissions. “Startling. Stark. Controversial,” he told me. “If I think ‘this one really put me through the mill’ after I’ve read it, it’ll probably get published.” On an average day, he receives upwards of 50 manuscripts, all of which he reads himself, but confesses that if the first few sentences don’t grab his interest, that’s it for the piece. “If I accept a story for publication, I face having to proofread it at least 10 to 15 times before it appears in print. It better be something I’ll enjoy reading 15 times.” In response to a question about the risk-taking eclecticism that characterizes the journal, he replied, “If someone sent me a really good fart joke, I’d probably publish it. Why say no to the possibilities?” What he doesn’t want to see is anything “‘glossy’ or accessible or that could be turned into a made-for-TV movie.”

When you enter the world of Happy, definitely expect to leave the comfort zone of the conventional behind. Going as far out on a limb as this journal regularly does, it stands to reason that every story isn’t necessarily a winner. I confess to a low tolerance of stories involving bodily functions or featuring a high gross-out quotient. But the flashes of genuine literary brilliance are frequent enough in every issue to keep a reader reading on - and outstanding enough to be short-listed for a Pushcart Prize, as in the case of Jennifer Lapidus’s “Flake White,” a story about a troubled artist who commits suicide by putting white paint on his sandwich instead of mayo.

According to Bayard, one of Happy’s missions is to combat the passivity that characterizes modern consumption of media. “Whether you like a story or not isn’t important. The question is: did you respond to it? Did it make you think?”

Happy succeeds in accomplishing its goal. In the process of reading 7 issues, I had strong reactions, either positive or negative, to every story—in itself, a remarkable thing in an age where ho-hum describes too much of contemporary fiction and literary journals often succumb to the malaise of sameness because of prevailing trends in style and subject matter—some of which may verge on the ridiculous.

“For awhile, all I got were tiny penis stories,” Bayard related. “I’d have thought it was a practical joke, but they kept on arriving and they were from all over the country. I didn’t publish any because none of them were big enough—the stories, that is, not the penises.”

The best of Happy would make any editor envious. Bayard looks for fiction that explores “the interior life of its characters” and presents “true feelings and real experiences” rather than political correctness or literary sleight-of-hand. The stories that stand out from the crowd (and it is quite a crowd, with an average of more than 40 stories per issue) have an edgy authenticity and a strong voice that propel the reader into disparate realities.

For example, in Emily Rubin’s “Birthday 1953” (#17), set in Russia as Stalin lies on his deathbed, a young girl plans a bizarre celebration for herself and her friends:

My mother feared any backlash if jocularity were heard from our apartment during this solemn time…To keep our party a secret from our neighbors, we agreed to be like the silent film stars Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino - responding to anything, happy or sad, with our faces and bodies, no sound allowed. It would be great fun, and my mother could maintain her uninterrupted vigil at the crackling radio without worrying about a visit from the black uniforms and leather boots of the police.

The straightforward, matter-of-fact style of writing belies the suffering of desperate people crushed by a repressive regime, beautifully symbolized by the image of voluntarily mute children miming pleasure and pain at a “not-a-party” birthday gathering.

Similarly, in Kristi Beer’s heartbreaking “Neighbors,” spare and unsentimental prose brilliantly evokes the plight of an elderly man facing death alone. On a scrap of yellow legal paper, taped to the wall by his Murphy bed, he has left four simple instructions for whoever discovers his body, ranging from where to find his clean underwear and good suit for burial to a desperate plea for someone to take good care of his cat. The isolation of urban life, the desolation of old age and the growing disconnectedness between people in 21st century America are unforgettably depicted in a story of less than 200 words.

In the gutsy, no-nonsense world of Happy, less is definitely more. Most of the stories are “flash” fiction or “short shorts,” a popular form that runs no more than a couple of pages or a few hundred words. The writing of mini-stories is a painstaking discipline and the authors represented in Happy are masters of the craft.

Strong imagery makes the 11/2 page “River of Dolls” (#11) a powerful exploration of guilt and expiation. Suzanne Kamata takes us into the psyche of a tormented wife, living in a house “alive with neon memories, glowing like charcoal briquets under Sunday steak,” where every room holds remembered scenes of violence, betrayal and pain. The self-styled symbolic rite of exorcism that the woman enacts to dispel the demons from her past lingers in one’s mind long after the story has been read.

Powerful and poignant images fill the pages of this journal. In “Shade and Shadow” (#13) by John Parras, a young girl watches a tom cat systematically drag off and devour a litter of kittens as she realizes some grim truths about her own family, her country, and herself. Carla Ryan’s “American Wisdom” (#12) takes the reader on a darkly funny road trip that tells the story of modern America via highway signs, billboards, advertising slogans and radio commercials.

In James Manley’s haunting “Goofy” (#13), what initially appears to be a husband’s bemused description of a quirky mate is actually the story of a failed marriage. Through deftly written flashbacks, we meet a woman who eats bread straight from the loaf, cries when she hugs puppies or throws out old shoes, joins a club called Porpoises Are People, and occasionally talks to trees. In 42 lines, an entire history of marital misunderstanding, disappointment and estrangement takes shape:

One time we went strolling through the woods, she spied a robin feeding its babies in the top of a black cherry tree. Her face glowing, she hugged my arm and asked me what I saw. I shrugged and said, “A big bird feeding some little birds.” The look in her eyes said I had given her the wrong answer.

Yesterday morning she walked into town and caught the eastbound bus. Old man Dottingham saw her get on, said all she had with her was a scraggly cardboard suitcase and a loaf of bread under her arm. Said she didn’t have much to say, but gave him a big hug, then sat down by a window and never looked back.

No telling where she was headed or what she intended doing when she got there. Truth is, she probably doesn’t know herself.

There’s plenty of humor to be found in Happy, much of it political or sexual, and all of it thoroughly irreverent and often in poor taste. Sometimes, however, it comes in forms that are refreshingly unexpected, such as Kerrilyn Bachler’s hilarious “The Joys of Motherhood????” (#11.) In a tone reminiscent of Erma Bombeck on acid, a mother of young twins maniacally plots her future revenge upon children who break TV sets during a “terrible two” temper tantrum, use a steak knife to impale their big purple Barney (and their sibling’s hand, too) and require frantic trips to ER after they “kick back . . . to enjoy a refreshing bottle of bleach”:

Ten or fifteen years from now, I’ll have no problem picking up the extension while one of them is cooing to a boy/girlfriend and farting into the phone . . . I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when they have friends over and my finger gets stuck up my nose . . . I plan an early and delayed menopause. I plan on having many symptoms. Some I will even make up . . . And senility, I’m planning that, too! At a rather young age—forty sounds good . . . If I torture my children for 30 to 40 years, by the time I’m ready for the nursing home, they will each have saved a fortune to ensure I won’t be living with them.”

Happy, which takes its name from a 1987 album by Victoria Williams, is attractively packaged, with striking photographic collages on the covers and throughout the magazine, thanks to designer/publisher Dan Peyton. As is the case with most independent literary journals today, it faces a constant economic struggle. At $15 a copy, it is one of the most expensive in the marketplace, but it also is one of the largest in terms of pages and numbers of stories published. Additionally, Bayard has creative solutions up his sleeve to raise funds as well as enhance the aesthetic appeal of the magazine. In the upcoming months, the journal will offer limited edition artwork, featured as covers and inserts, by well-known artists Ruth Root and Lisa Yuskazage.

All in all, Happy is a remarkably spunky and curiously likeable journal, and a major showcase of the flash fiction genre. “The one thing all the stories I publish have in common is honesty,” Bayard says. That quality of raw honesty may set your teeth on edge or it may speak to your soul. It may infuriate you or give you a hearty laugh or bring tears to your eyes. You may throw Happy across the room occasionally—but more than likely, you’ll retrieve it and go on reading.

One thing, however, it will never do: bore you. Or bullshit you. That’s guaranteed.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/happy/