Ben Loory cover

Last month, while rifling through my Santa sack full of galleys, I was drawn to one cover in particular, which depicted a flying saucer and a reddish-orange tentacle. (Let us all admit right now that we judge a lot of books by their covers.) This beguiling art belonged to Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011), Ben Loory‘s crazily entertaining (and sometimes just crazy) collection of offbeat tales.

Chicago, my adopted hometown, has so many alleys that they could form a whole other mirror city. Similarly, to read Loory’s fiction is to wander down the hidden tributaries of the world—mysterious roads behind roads that promise a mix of the familiar and the unexpected. The author hits this combination in 40 stories that, like fairy tales, start simply enough before delving into the bizarre: “A man and a woman go to visit a famous astronaut.” “The boy and the girl live in a small town.” “The hunter returns to his village one night with a severed human head in one hand.”

Peppered with Bigfoot, a leviathan, and yes, UFOs, the author’s work captures the feel of contemporary folklore: In Looryland, televisions write operas about Winston Churchill, a fish appears in a teapot, and a man breaks into a museum to parry with a medieval shield. For a “day pass” to the collection, see “The Girl in the Storm.”

In Gina Frangello’s birthday essay last year, where she sang the praises of the cult (er, family) of The Nervous Breakdown, she asked, “Have you HEARD Ben Loory’s voice?” Well, I haven’t, but if it’s anything like his writing, it’s well worth hearing. Loory, whose surreal “The TV” appeared in The New Yorker, is a screenwriter, and he brings some of the succinctness of that genre to these minimalist compressions—one of the stories is a mere three sentences long. It’s telling that out of the whole book, only a handful of characters have proper names (one of them is a life-size doll of a missing prisoner). In this fictional universe, just about anything or anyone can be a protagonist: In addition to penning stories about “the woman,” “the boy,” and “the family,” Loory also gives starring roles to a lovelorn duck, a skydiving moose and a tree with wanderlust.

There are clever meditations on the fear of fear itself, illustrated by a creature at the bottom of a public pool, and by an overprotective parent’s attitude toward a balloon. Some stories also touch on themes of culture and assimilation: A woman becomes uncomfortable with an astronaut’s domestic helper, a Martian; a city-dwelling, spoon-collecting octopus has forgotten where he comes from. However, I would caution against reading too much into all this dark fun: Sometimes a zombie is just a zombie (see “The Graveyard,” where a man moves to a cemetery and battles nightly with the Living Dead).

Loory’s prose is bare, but it’s that pared-down style that gives breathing room to the narratives’ fantastical elements and turns of plot. Only one tale, “Death and the Fruits of the Tree,” where a man confronts the Grim Reaper, is anything close to predictable. Sometimes, the modern fable can easily become an excuse to dispense with the difficulties of characterization, setting, and detail—a bedtime story that’s all frame and no mattress. This collection, however, is a well-dressed bed indeed. With nary a vampire in sight.

How refreshing is that?

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DIKA LAM was born in Canada and lives in Chicago. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Story, One Story, Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999, This Is Not Chick Lit (Random House, 2006), and A Stranger Among Us (OV Books, 2008). She was a New York Times Fellow at New York University, a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. A nominee for Canada's Journey Prize, she is also a winner of the Bronx Writers' Center Chapter One contest.

2 responses to “Love & Squalor: All-Terrain Stories”

  1. I really like the earnest moose when he said, ‘I hope we can be friends.’ and you don’t know if they will survive the fall or not. I really hope they do.

  2. Dika Lam says:

    I hope they survive that fall too. Whether one believes they do or not is probably a litmus test for whether one is an optimist or a pessimist!

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