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.




by Okla Elliott

It has been said that poetry feeds no one, and no doubt, I have felt occasionally that reading or writing literature is merely an indulgence, one many people cannot afford. But that’s a rather limited view of how literature, the presses that publish it, and its practitioners function in the world.

In many ways, literature offers an opportunity to be political completely outside the electoral arena, something the people of this country (which has a two-party duopoly currently in place) sorely need.

Who can read a novel like The Quiet American (Graham Greene) and not rethink the Vietnam Conflict in human terms? Who can read Fox Girl (Nora Okja Keller) and not be heartbroken over how US military bases in South Korea negatively impacted the lives of the people who inhabited the camptowns around them? And, here again, in human/emotional terms, not mere numbers which lose meaning in their abstraction. Gore Vidal’s historical novels help readers to review American history from a different perspective. War memoirs personalize tragedies via the concrete and hellish details, as opposed a government’s abstractions of patriotism, freedom, or liberation which try (quite effectively) to dehumanize what is going on and thereby make it more stomachable.

That is perhaps literature’s greatest strength. It removes the easy cleanness of abstraction and introduces the muck and blood of reality into political thought. I do not mean to suggest that more rigid statistical analysis doesn’t have a very important role in politics; of course it does, as nearly everyone agrees. But literature can bring life to those numbers in a way that can motivate people to act, which our emotions are more likely to do than our intellect in most cases.

Unfortunately, however, too often writers in the United States eschew the political as beneath the dignity of high art. Not only is this a view solely held by our nation (in Europe, Africa, South America, etc, politics and art/literature quite often go hand in hand), but it is also so obviously nonsensical, I don’t see how it gained such ideological traction. Am I to believe that the lives and deaths of my fellow man are beneath the purview of art? Or that war cannot or should not produce insightful novels and poems?

But literary work doesn’t have to be openly political to perform a political or ethical function. When a middle-aged man in upstate New York reads a novel about a young girl in an impoverished Kentucky town, his knowledge of humanity is broadened as are his powers of empathy. And empathy makes us less likely to support policies that harm others.

And it’s not just the work itself that is political. There is a political aspect to the publishing and purchasing of books.

Let’s look at small presses for a moment. The term “small press” is an elusive term, as it includes presses with an all-paid staff and tens of thousands of dollars in grant support, as well as presses run by an all-volunteer staff out of someone’s apartment. But what small presses definitely are not are the huge publishing houses owned by corporations like AT&T that largely crank out books with cute cats on the cover or books that otherwise play to our basest sensibilities. Take, as an example of an excellent small press, Ugly Duckling Presse, which specializes in experimental literature and literature in translation. Experimental literature might have no overt political message, but it seeks to shake things up or offer an alternative view on human experience and thought. And translation is highly political, even when the content of what is translated is not. Every translation is an entry into another culture, an invitation to understand how people live in other parts of the world. By better understanding other cultures, it strikes me that we are more likely to respect them and therefore less likely to want to bomb the shit out of them. And, aside from the occasional blockbuster hit, most translation comes out of university presses or small presses, as well as small literary journals.

To take a cue from this blog’s name, I’ll not be merely descriptive of what literature can and does do; I’ll be prescriptive about what editors, writers, and readers ought to do (or ought to do more of), bringing us to the classic progressive question—what is to be done? First, editors need to solicit more well-crafted political writing, more translations, and more travel literature (whether it be poetry or prose, fiction or non-). Second, more writers need to be producing such work (and here I don’t mean preachy, one-dimensional stuff, but rather complex, well-crafted, multiply indicting work). Third, lovers of literature and writers (or people who hope to be writers) need to support the small press industry with subscriptions to journals and by buying books.  We also need to purchase well-written and politically sophisticated books from the major publishers to teach them in the only terms they understand (i.e., profits) to produce more books like the aforementioned Fox Girl (out from Penguin) and fewer books with cats dressed in cowboy hats or superman capes or whathaveyou.

In closing, I offer a very abbreviated list of books, journals, and presses that might be of interest. If you have any to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.


Rising Up and Rising Down (nonfiction), by William T Vollmann; After the Lost War (poetry), by Andrew Hudgins; Disgrace (fiction), by J.M. Coetzee; This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (fiction), by Tadeusz Borowski; Salazar Blinks (fiction), by David Slavitt; Cancer Ward (fiction), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Our Lives Are Rivers (poetry) by Mark Smith-Soto; A Gesture Life (fiction), by Chang-Rae Lee; Selected Poems (poetry), by Marina Tsvetaeva; Death and the Maiden (drama), by Ariel Dorfman; Christopher Unborn (fiction), by Carlos Fuentes; and, again, Fox Girl (fiction), by Nora Okja Keller.


Blue Mesa Review, Circumference, Contrary, Crab Orchard Review, Hobart, Indiana Review, International Poetry Review, The Literary Review, Main Street Rag, Monthly Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, New York Quarterly, A Public Space, and The Sun.


Copper Canyon Press, Dzanc Books, Graywolf Press, Monthly Review Press, Press 53, Red Hen Press, Seven Stories Press, and Wave Books—as well as dozens of university presses (e.g., Ohio State, LSU, Northwestern, etc).