Book Review of Curtis Smith’s BAD MONKEY

Spending/Reading Politically: Curtis Smith’s Bad Monkey

by Raul Clement

Historically speaking, I don’t read much work from small presses and journals.  I am well aware of the arguments against this: 1) as an aspiring professional, I should support the industry that I hope will support me; 2) there’s a lot of good stuff out there that doesn’t get picked up by major New York presses; 3) politically, not supporting small presses is like shopping at Wal-Mart over your local grocery.  Yet I tend to stick to Barnes & Noble.  Indy for me is McSweeney’s or Tin House.

Recently, I won a drawing from Press 53. The prize was a book of my choice from their catalog. Because of my ignorance about small presses, I pretty much had to pick at random.  I chose Bad Monkey, a book of short fiction by Curtis Smith, for two reasons, both superficial: 1) the title struck me as amusing; and 2) I liked the cover.

It turns out you can judge a book by its cover—if that cover is a monochrome photo of a shirtless man crouched, monkey-like, on a back alley stairwell.  The photo promised a collection that was quirky and dark—and those adjectives apply.  There are stories about abduction, Russian mobsters, Ukrainian rapists, and demolition derbies. This is not the plotless, slice-of-life fiction so popular in journals, large and small, these days.

Even better news is that these stories avoid the pitfall of other work of their kind: stylization. Curtis Smith knows that high drama, in order to be believable and compelling, must be grounded in careful prose and attention to detail.  He writes about the most over-the-top subject matter with a subdued lyricism that reminds me of writers of a more traditional bent, like John Updike.

Here is a passage from the first story in the collection, “The Girl in the Halo.” It is told in the second person, the “you” being a teenage misfit in a high school of rich kids. One of these kids, a girl named Sally for whom “you” harbored secret feelings, has gone missing—presumably not willingly. In this scene, Smith observes the effect of her absence on the chemistry lab she and “you” took together:

“…how many bleary mornings had you spied on her, her purple pen scribbling notes and Mr. Fink droning on as he held one of his molecules, a slapped-together collection of spheres and connecting sticks that reminded you of a child’s toy.”

I’m not going to pretend that there’s anything groundbreaking here. But it’s solid, unflashy writing. It starts with “bleary,” which evokes the drag that high school was for most, while being a word we can read right past. But what really gets me here—what really takes a sledgehammer to my cynical reader’s heart—is the purple pen, encapsulating as it does an entire world of vanished innocence and half-realized femininity.  And the molecular model is great, too: who doesn’t remember these, and yet who remembered that he remembered them?

This is what good fiction’s all about: the oft-referenced “shock of recognition.”  By generating that shock, Smith earns the right to tell a story in the second-person (and present tense at that, though the above quote doesn’t demonstrate it).  He earns the right to sensationalist subject matter.  I am not going to give away the ending, but suffice to say, it’s a killer—pun certainly intended.

There are flaws in this collection. At times, the writing can wander into the excessively literary. At these moments, it reminded me of the worst stuff from small journals and presses—writing that adopts the tone of “good” writing, while having none of the feeling or insight. Here’s an offender from the same story, concerning the rumors that have circulated around school regarding Sally’s disappearance:

“Daryl Stone claims he spotted Blake’s red car on the other side of the Duke street railroad crossing, and between the hoppers’ cars flickering, thundering parade, he saw a blonde in the passenger seat…but when the caboose passed, the car was gone, the gate’s zebra-striped arm raised over a deserted macadam patch.”

I seriously doubt Daryl Stone described the scene this way. Now one can argue that this is the way “you” re-imagine(s) it. But there are similar instances throughout the collection, where Smith loses track of his characters in an ecstasy of linguistic posturing. Here’s one from “Without Words”:

“Ambrose, a cost analyst by trade and thus skilled in calculations and extrapolations, could have predicted these things, but when her loaded-down car pulled from the curb, what he couldn’t have predicted was the greater absences that would find him, his life’s unappreciated scaffolding of love and trust and faith sent crashing to the ground.”

I trust you can see why this is bad—or maybe not bad, but merely competent. A little bullshitty. Additionally, there are several examples of flash fiction here, which in trying to pack too much punch in too small a space, fail to achieve resonance. Maybe some people will like them; I preferred the more expansive work, where Smith’s lyrical aggregation has time to take hold.

But these flaws are, by and large, overlookable. Stories like “Think on Thy Sins”—in which a series of questionable moral decisions lead to one of the most bad-ass, and emotionally damaging eruptions of violence in recent short fiction—more than justify the $12 cover price which I cleverly avoided, but which you will have to pay. An earlier collection, The Species Crown, is next up on my list. I will shell out hard cash for it, and unlike when I shop at Barnes & Noble, I will know my money is going to the preservation of something real.

This could be the beginning of beautiful friendship.

Raul Clement is a musician and writer living in Greensboro, NC. His work appears in such journals and anthologies as Coe Review, Mayday Magazine, and Main Street Rag, among others. He is currently at work, with co-author Okla Elliott, on Joshua City — a Brechtian, po/mo, sci-fi novel replete with lepers, revolutionaries, and Siamese triplets who can see the future. An excerpt from Joshua City appeared in Surreal South 2009.

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