Recent Work By Richard Thomas

“I WILL CROSS- STITCH AN IMAGE OF YOUR FUTURE HOME BURNING. I WILL HANG THIS IMAGE OVER YOUR BED WHILE YOU SLEEP.”

The debut novel by Amelia Gray, entitled THREATS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is an unsettling and hypnotic story of loss, disintegration and the ways that love both builds and destroys us, anchors us, and alternately, lets us drift away. This is not conventional storytelling, but if you’ve read Gray’s work already (Museum of the Weird and AM/PM) then this will come as no surprise. To call this a detective story would be limiting. You have to jump in with both feet into the freezing waters, no easing a toe beneath the surface to see if the water is indeed water, to see if everything is safe. Nothing is safe, or reliable, and often others don’t have our best interests at heart.

Strange things are happening in Ampersand, Mass. (Keyhole Press). In this collection of short stories by William Walsh, there is pornography, amnesia, obsession, a real life muse, a cross-eyed teddy bear, shoplifting, and a barber running from heart disease. These tales run the gamut from fantastical and bizarre to sweet and touching to heartbreaking and morose. Sounds like life—like most towns, big or small. But in his unique point of view, Walsh unveils relationships that are familiar, and yet, not quite right—a twist or oddity that makes these tales his own.

Damascus (Two Dollar Radio) is a depressing, raw, and touching novel, the latest tale of lost misfits and depraved losers from Joshua Mohr. Here we find Owen, the owner of the bar Damascus, who dresses as Santa Claus, a man with a birthmark under his nose that makes him look like a modern day Hitler. There is a man dying of cancer, No Eyebrows, who simply wants to be touched. There is Shambles, the jerk-off queen, who is willing to do just that, her marriage recently ended in divorce, haunting the late night bars with no purpose or goal in mind. There is Revv, the bartender, a tattooed drunk whose last act may be one of cowardice. And there is Syl, a controversial artist who brings a wave of doom upon the bar, stirring up trouble from war veterans by depicting dead soldiers in her painting while nailing fish to the already stagnant walls of Damascus.

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Karl Taro Greenfeld’s NowTrends (Short Flight/Long Drive Books) is worth reading simply for the exotic locations and unique settings, but there is much more going on in this collection. A layered sadness permeates these stories, often soliciting sympathy for the main characters. At other times, a sense of entitlement causes the reader to become frustrated and even angry at these spoiled people. And still other stories allow us to understand the uncertainty that life offers up, even amidst important events and epic moments, unsure of how to take these revelations, unable to change—even when willing.

In Kate Zambreno’s hallucinatory and disjointed Green Girl (Emergency Press), we are lured into the world of Ruth, a young American girl lost and damaged in London. Following this ingénue into her dark musings, the echoes of voices fill the page—Ruth, HIM, her mother, the author, and the silver screen flickering in the distance. It is a hypnotic read—the duality of Ruth—her good side and her darkness, the need to behave and the need to be punished.

Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors was the winner of the Drue Heinz Literary Prize for 2011, showcasing a collection of short stories that speaks to us about love, need, and irreversible actions. What is necessary, what behaviors do we implore when seeking freedom, family or peace? When you are in love with a man and a woman, how do you decide between the two, amidst puppies and wives and a bed filled with the ghosts of your lovemaking? Would you be willing to deal drugs, to sell a large quantity of pot in order to keep your family intact, to chase that plastic package into a dark river, riddled with fear? A mother caught in a steam room masturbating her way into another world, another life, the one she wishes she had lived, cannot overshadow her own daughter’s questionable love for a teacher, a coach, an older man. Lost in the jungle, one woman finds that her sexuality knows no boundaries, instead captivated by the slick dark flesh of men and women alike, trying hard to leave behind the civilized world, in order to embrace her true self. A queer zoo, Bob Barker, and a AAA travel guide eager to get off the beaten path, round out this body of work, the stories in this slim bound volume heartbreaking, alluring, exotic, and lush.

It started with a bisexual, nymphomaniac girlfriend and went downhill from there. I know it sounds like fun—it’s the ultimate fantasy, a girl with powerful appetites. She not only liked to masturbate in front of me, but went shopping with me for sex toys, both of us flushed and anxious, our heads stuffed with cotton candy, our slick skin eager to be stroked. But then the cocaine came out and the LSD was taken and the next thing I knew she was sucking a guy’s dick in our studio apartment, not really understanding what the word “fluffing” meant, his photograph about to go out into the world, a swinging single looking for a partner. And I was somehow shocked at what happened. There were rules in place, believe it or not, and they were quickly broken. She pulled up her skirt in the back alley of a hotel restaurant, the hostess with the mostest, her blonde waitress friend down on her knees. She jacked up any guy that approached her on the dance floor, and my jealousy surprised me. So I brought home two girls when she was out of town, this opportunity that fell into my lap a once in a lifetime charity that I could not deny. Between the Aussie and the Brit there was only a blur of limbs and a chorus of moaning. The next morning it was all “please take a pair of complimentary sunglasses on your way out the door and thanks for playing.” I was the last fling of a pool hall diva dressed in skin-tight black from head to toe, cleavage and long legs and the sun came up once again.

I hadn’t hit the road yet. I was still trying to leave.

It ended, as all things did back them, the drama of youth, with screaming and tears—whatever had been there shattered into jagged fragments of innocence lost, intimacy turned out for the world to see, and nothing was special anymore.

A road trip was offered up by my Hacky Sack beach bum buddy. How could this possibly go wrong? We would head down to glorious Conway, Arkansas, work some crappy jobs and save up a few grand, buy a junker of a car and head out to California, the wanderlust running across our itchy flesh, eager to find adventure.

Conway was not the place to find it.

The first hint that things would not go well emerged when the plane landed, when my friend informed me that his parents were not expecting the both of us, just him it turns out, the prodigal son. Unpacking our bags, a lukewarm reception was making me sweat, and my bag of pot had disappeared. He had smoked it before we even left Chicago.

A college degree and extensive computer skills did not go over well in the Bible Belt—that kind of office work was for the women down here. There were factory jobs at $4 an hour, and those were the best gigs in town. My friend came home covered in lint—he worked with toilet paper and paper towels. I stumbled home with a stiff neck from looking over my shoulder all the time. I ate out of a vending machine, not realizing that talking to the girls that worked there was akin to fingering them in the back of a pickup truck. Their men didn’t like it. The lifers down in Conway liked it even less when I got promoted to my own assembly line, troubleshooting a massive machine of metal and gears, computer parts flowing down a conveyor belt, grease and hammers and tobacco spit at my feet. Soon, I avoided the break room at all costs. For my dinner I drove the borrowed family car to a nearby McDonald’s, my thirty-minute break at the factory the only time I was alone. It was a quick push of the gas pedal to a liquor store next door. I melted into the parking lot and sulked. Stuffing the ninety-nine cent double cheeseburger down my gullet, I sucked down a forty ounce, the foam filling my stomach. Often I leaned out the car and vomited it back up, a sad existence that only got worse.

I got fired from this dream job when I went home for Christmas, my parents unaware that I was falling apart, lost on the road. I repeatedly asked the girl in the office if I had enough days to take off, if I could go home to see my mama. Would I have a job when I got back? She said yes, you’re fine, you have two days to spare.

I didn’t. She had lied.

This lead to a day job at a pizza joint next to a nearby university, the best thing I could find. I became a waiter on the lunch shift, where they had a buffet—the college kids scattering their spare change over the scarred tabletops, laughing as they strolled out into the sunlight. My tips were pathetic and never made of paper. If I hadn’t been having phone sex with the ex-girlfriend back in Chicago on a regular basis—pulling the phone cord (that’s right, I said phone cord) into the bathroom, stretching it as far as it could go, as she rubbed between her legs, slipping fingers inside herself, coming into the mouthpiece, my shame reaching a new low—then I might have been able to save a few dollars. Instead, I was broke as hell.

At night, for fun, down here in Conway, Arkansas, I decided to take a ride with the manager of the pizza place, his girlfriend in the middle seat, as we sucked down beer and drove around town, cruising the dirt roads and looking for niggers. His word, not mine. He liked to find stray black kids and pelt them with rocks as he drove by. I swallowed my beer and muttered into the dashboard. He asked me to speak up, son. I told him it wasn’t right, any of it, the nigger talk, the rocks—his whole fucked up way of getting off. He dumped me in a cornfield with a couple of beers, and told me to find my way home. You’re a college graduate, I’m sure you can figure it out. As he pulled away his girlfriend turned around, looking out the back window, and I was relieved. I would eventually find my way home, I knew that much. As long as a truck load of angry black kids didn’t drive by and stone me to death. I smoked and drank, staring at the stars, barely remembering which way to head—the limited choices helping me to get back to town, it was only a left and two rights, I thought.

I didn’t want to be here. I needed to find my friend—we needed to get on the road—we had to get out of this town.

When the girlfriend pulled up in the pickup truck an hour later, I was not surprised. She apologized for her drunk-ass boyfriend, and we sat in the cab and drank more beer. She started to cry, showing me bruises, some of them fresh—pulling up her shirt, stretching a bra strap, unbuttoning her jeans. You could see where this was going. Her life was a mess, her boyfriend a racist jerk with no hopes of going anywhere, her sobs drenching my shoulder, and soon enough, her tongue was in my mouth. I fucked her from behind in the redneck’s pickup truck, a toothy grin stretching across my face. We drove back with the windows rolled down, panic starting to wash over me—he’ll have to smell it, he’ll have to know. I was a dead man, I thought to myself.

The next day at work, sick to my stomach, I walked in the door and he asked me to step into his office. This was it, he knew. I turned to glance at the girlfriend as she stood behind the cash register, her lips pursed, swallowing laughter, eyes sparkling with secrets. This was all a game to her. Instead of a fist in my mouth he stuck out his hand and asked me for forgiveness, apologizing for being an asshole. No hard feelings? I swallowed and shook his hand. No worries, bro, we’re good.

When I got home from work that day, the family scattered all over town—the father at the rail yard, the mother at a daycare center, older sister at the diner, the underage sister lying on the couch, one hand slipped into her jeans, her eyes rolling over me—I discovered that my buddy was gone. The straw, this was the straw—he had joined the navy and left me here all alone. My jaw hung open, the girl on the couch muttering something about a shower, peeling her clothes off as she walked to her bedroom, and everything felt like a trap. I sat down on the tattered living room couch, my feet on the faded rug, all lumpy and crooked. I pulled it back to fix the strange terrain, and I saw dirt underneath a worn hole in the wood floor, and a herniated root pushing through.

This was road tripping gone bad.

There was a bus station in town, a mile away. I grabbed everything I had, which wasn’t much—a handful of wadded up bills and a backpack—and got ready to hoof it into town. I didn’t stick my head into the bathroom and tell the girl, naked now, curtain pulled back, pale white skin and firm breasts, not eighteen yet, definitely not eighteen yet, I didn’t tell her I was leaving and give her a quick kiss, my tongue in her mouth. That didn’t happen. I didn’t lift the lid of a cookie jar high up on a shelf and steal forty dollars—that is a lie. I didn’t go to the master bath and pick up the lid on the toilet to pilfer a pint of Jim Beam that the father had hidden from his wife. He didn’t drink, so there was nothing for me to steal. I was committing no crimes on the way out the door—I was only surviving, trying to find a way out.

Boots on gravel, trucks whooshing by, the corn and dust swallowed me up. I walked, invisible, towards the bus station, bourbon on my breath, a cigarette burning down to singe my fingertips numb. I made my way out. I can’t say as much for the rest of them, and in my departure, I forgave them, and moved on.

When you think of places where crime lurks, locations where you should keep the car rolling through stop signs, where you never stop to ask for directions, a few names may pop into your head. Maybe you think of Detroit or East St. Louis, Baltimore or Miami. It’s time to add Corydon, Indiana, to that list, as well as the entire southern part of the state.

212-6619-Product_LargeToMediumImageWhen you wander around the desert looking for trouble, searching for an escape, sometimes you find it. In Brian Allen Carr’s powerful collection of short fiction, Short Bus, characters drift through small towns in Texas and Mexico, engulfing these border stories as if huffing paint: Lost, disoriented, with questionable motivations and histories.  Carr is able to weave into these adventures the heartbreak, the buried love and intimacy that is sought in the shadows, and then to leave us laughing, shaking our head, and wincing at the pain and suffering we have witnessed, wishing somehow that we could undo it. A boy loses his hand and his father contemplates drowning him. A younger brother considers setting his face on fire in order to gain the sympathy and attention that his older brother gets. A husband questions his pregnant wife’s faithfulness, drawing tiny moustaches on the x-rays of  the fetus. It all unfolds under the stifling sun, shadows cast in every direction.

“Some people were born just so they could be buried…”

If you’ve heard of Donald Ray Pollock, it was probably due to his collection of interlinked short stories, Knockemstiff published back in 2009, set in the titular town. His debut novel, The Devil All the Time (Doubleday) treads similar ground, spending most of its time in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, tracking and recording a wide range of psychopathic behaviors by a motley crew of misfits and delinquents.

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“Sometimes what you want is to be somewhere you do not belong.”

Kio Stark’s lyrical Follow Me Down (Red Lemonade) is a densely packed novella that wanders the projects of New York City capturing the lives of the people that live there in glorious detail—photographs melting into still life paintings, fingers smudged from handling wet paint that should have been left to dry. Sometimes you get a little dirty when you dig, and sometimes people need to disappear. Our protagonist, Lucy is unwilling and unable to turn her back on a mysterious letter that has been freed from the dead-letter office by unknown forces—a picture inside lost for twenty years, the echo of her long lost brother murmuring in the empty corners of her apartment. We follow Lucy as she tries to get to the bottom of this mystery. She sees the world for all that it is: dangerous and heartbreaking and kind. The characters of her gritty neighborhood streets—the people she sees on the subway as she commutes to her dull job in an office high up in the metal skyscrapers—they are her muse. These people embody her every waking hope and fear. They are her touchstone and lodestone—her dysfunctional adopted family.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
—Karl Marx

One of the first books released by Red Lemonade, the visionary new press brought to life by ex-Soft Skull patriarch Richard Nash, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is a powerful, political, sometimes humorous, often frightening portrait of a parallel world that lurks in the near future in all of its dystopian glory. Della is caught in an emotional battle, deciding whether or not she should leave the country that is dissolving around her, or help to bring it down faster. Bombs are going off, but capitalism continues unabated. Unsure of what to do, Della starts calling in bomb threats of her own, targeting the companies and locations that offend her the most. When the threats start turning into actual destruction, she questions the her role in these events, the universe wrapping around her, burning martyrs and rat queens shimmering at the edge of her vision.

A touching, funny, and unflinching look at a dysfunctional family, Drinking Closer to Home (Harper Perennial) by Jessica Anya Blau is a history that many of us may have lived. Hippie parents, competition between siblings, and the growing pains that we all endured: these are the fond memories and nightmares of our youth. What do you do when your mother quits being a mother? When your father grows pot plants in the back yard? When your older sister turns into a cigarette smoking, hard drinking woman on the prowl? When your younger sister retreats into her shell, a beach bunny with hidden dreams? When you suspect your brilliant brother of being gay, a ghost lost in the shadow of his dominant sisters? These stories are told in a series of flashbacks from 1968 to the present while the family is gathered around the hospital bed of their mother as she recuperates from a heart attack. Their sordid tales of youth and adventure unfold at a rapid clip, as the present-day regrets and promises to change float about the sterile hospital room and the messy homestead as well. Louise the freewheeling mother; Buzzy the worrisome father; Anna the wild older sister; Portia the heartbroken younger sister; and Emery the shy brother, run us through the wringer, and in the process, endear themselves to us—holding up mirrors, and windows, and open hands, looking for forgiveness.

One of the first things to get my attention as I held the slim chapbook Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City (Dark Sky Books) by Michael Bible in my hands was the blurb on the back from Barry Hannah. Why? Because it’s Barry Hannah, that’s why:

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Given a choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief.”
—William Faulkner

I wasn’t prepared for this memoir, this baptism by fire that Lidia Yuknavitch pours out onto the pages of The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). I was aware of the controversy about the exposed breast on the cover, the grey band of paper wrapped around the book to appease those who can’t stand to see such obscenity. I was lured in by the glowing testimonials of authors I know and respect, people like Chuck Palahniuk, Monica Drake, and Chelsea Cain (who writes the introduction), her close-knit group of fellow authors, her workshop, support group, therapy and champions. But no, I wasn’t prepared for her voice—the power, the lyrical passages, and the raw, crippling events that destroyed her youth, but made her the woman she is today: fearless, funny, honest, and kind. By not being prepared, the opening lines hit me hard, and I in fact stopped for a moment, realizing that this was going to be bumpy ride, a dark story, but one that held nothing back. So I took a breath, and I went under: