Barney’s Crew by Sean Carswell

In the times of The Da Vinci Code, The Notebook, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, major publishing houses have facilitated their burgeoning obsolescence by producing flat, and, for the most part, un-engaging books completely devoid of artistic merit. Gone are the days of Joyce and Hemingway. Here instead is a corporate mentality that concerns itself more with initial sales than style and substance. While there are a few contemporary novelists of note — Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z. Danielewski, to name a few — working within the confines of the corporate publishing world, major publishing houses have, for the most part, stymied and marginalized one of the world’s oldest and most sacred art forms.

Independent publishing houses working outside of the influence of the New York publishers, however, have proven over the past few years that literature, unlike the crap that dominates the bookshelves in any given store, is far from dead.

Case in point: Sean Carswell and Gorsky Press.

The latter, founded by a collective of writers currently located on the west coast, entered the publishing game in 1999 with the publication of Drinks For The Little Guy, Carswell’s first novel. Touted as a cross between Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat and Dr. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Drinks is a drunken, punk rock homage to working class America.

Carswell, founding member of Gorky Press and co-founder of Razorcake Magazine, an indie-punk rock journal, is a writer of true form: he writes from the heart, concerns himself more with substance than style, and shrugs off the desire to seek out fame and fortune. “People often tell me that I’m wasting my time and wasting my talents,” he writes in Glue and Ink Rebellion, his second book. “I seem to be a magnet for people who want to ask me, ‘Why don’t you just write (fill in the blank) and make some real money, then worry about writing what you want?'”

Barney’s Crew, a collection of short stories, wonderfully illustrated by Art Fuentes, creator of the Li’l Beez comic strip featured in Razorcake Magazine, continues his journey to write what he wants, how he wants, and when he wants.

Comprised of ten short stories, Barney’s Crew runs the gamut of themes, from drunken middle class construction workers, to jaded teenage girls, to dog races and grade school competitions. Carswell is the J.D. Salinger for the Internet Generation. His stories cut to the bone of humane, sometimes quirky, characters. His prose is sparse and often underplayed, and his stories, usually light on plot, traverse the inner plains of his uniquely American characters.

At his best, he reads like the finest of writers. “Fourteen and Small”, for example, resembles Salinger. Carswell leaps into the heads of his characters, in this case a fourteen-year-old girl, and breathes life into incredibly well rounded characters. At his worst, he can get a little long winded. Quite a few stories in this collection would have benefited from a little editing. None of the stories, however, are bad, and none should be overlooked.

The collection owes a lot to the woes of growing up. The majority of the pieces in Barney’s Crew would fall into the Bildungsroman category, but it is a deep humanity and care for these characters — although sometimes skewed, the author never condescends to the characters or has them wink at the camera, so to speak — that renders this a truly exceptional short story collection. There are no gimmicks here. No hooks meant to snag the reader, just fine prose and wonderfully rich, sympathetic characters.

It should be noted that, although Carswell is co-founder and contributor to a punk rock magazine, there are few anti-conformist, anti-establishment shots fired in his book. As the promotional material suggests, “Sean Carswell is an eyewitness correspondent of the marginally employed, a street-level philosopher of the underclass majority.” His writings have more in common with Hemingway and Jean Thompson than Sid and Nancy.

In a perfect world, Dan Brown would be tinkering on a word processor right now, struggling to find an agent for the slush that he passes off as fiction, while Sean Carswell and his like, authors marginalized by a world terrified of taking chances and obsessed with publishing hooky material with little to offer outside of blandness and mediocrity, would be enjoying their stay on best-seller lists. True characters and refreshing dilemmas will never be found in department store-sold mainstream novels, and so we must look elsewhere. Thank God for Carswell, Gorsky Press, and every independent publisher tired of glamorizing entertainment for entertainment’s sake.