By Meghan McNamara
Last night I read a whole book in one sitting. It took me 45 minutes. When I was done, I couldn’t stop thinking about the family—the father’s cruelty towards his children, the mother’s complicity, how little resolution I was left with in the end. I thought about the author, and how the dedication suggested that at least some of this book is based on his life, on the death of his own sibling, perhaps.
Lex Williford’s novella-in-flash, "Superman on the Roof" (Rose Metal Press, 2017), is a single narrative, told in ten self-contained stories, nearly every chapter the same line repeated—“after our kid brother Jesse died”—and another memory. Related from the perspective of the eldest sibling, Travis, "Superman on the Roof" is a captivating glimpse into one family’s loss of their youngest member, Jesse, from a rare blood disease.
Amidst the backdrop of 1960s Texas, the language is stoic, and at times stilted, the tenor decidedly southern gothic. Travis describes his brother’s body in technical detail—“spotted with yellow-blue bruises on his chicken-bone knees and elbows and shins, his belly white and round and thumping hard as a honeydew melon”—a kind of affection seeping between the lines: “Hearing him laugh, Maddie and Nate and I joined him, still warm from our beds,” he says. “Maddie punching us hard whenever we bumped or splashed him, three rowdy kids and one sick kid all crowded into a three-tubed vinyl pool from FedMart.”
Unsentimental and poignant in the same stroke, Williford explores the wicked side of grief, how poverty colors loss, and the way death needles its way into the human identity, forever reshaping the lives it influences. The characters are evocative, their collective loss the provocateur for their own cruelty, towards one another and themselves. “It was only right and fair that my father should turn against me,” Travis says. “And all I could do—my father’s eldest son, the one who’d killed his youngest—was to stand silent over the years as my mother and father’s grief and rage twisted itself like tanged thorns into switches, belts and boards.”
Less linear, but no less ambitious, Alex McElroy’s "Daddy Issues" (The Cupboard Pamphlet, Vol. 30, 2017) is a five-story collection that distorts the boundaries of voice, character, and form. The first story, “The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart,” is conveyed exactly as the name suggests—in flowchart form—a brilliant vehicle by which, in the space of just 16 pages, the narrator covers the accidental death of his son at his brother’s careless hand, his long concealed infidelity, and the guilt that weaves its way through both these truths.
Akin to Jennifer Egan’s chapter in PowerPoint (featured in her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Visit from the Goon Squad"), the flowchart allows for—and in many ways creates—levity, permitting readers to navigate the complex landscape of a father’s mourning and still come out the other end laughing at the dark comedy contained within it.
McElroy’s stories vary in both form and approach, veering towards the downright experimental, as is the case with the title story in the book. Told through a series of choppy, vignette-like paragraphs, “Daddy Issues” serves as a sort of thesis for the collection, reflecting on the relationships between fathers and their children, on the intricacies and sometimes the banalities of being a parent, and also just of life.
“Anthony Henson’s son screamed in the night. He did not know how to raise his son by himself—but to whom, he wondered at night, lying in bed beside his son and massaging his neck and chest, to whom should he apologize?” reads one paragraph.
“Jorge Menendez sprays poison on rocks for nine hours every day,” reads another.
A week later, and several pages into my next enterprise, I am still considering these strangle little graphs, still reflecting on what I should think McElroy is attempting to convey.
I’d be remiss to discuss tiny books without the context of their modern origins: the poetry chapbook. Bryan Borland’s latest collection, "Tourist" (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018) is easily one of the most timely I’ve read in recent months.
Penned during the book tour for his second full-length poetry collection, "DIG" (Stillhouse Press, 2016), "Tourist" is a haunting snapshot in time, and Borland, the cultural observer. Capturing both urban and rural portraits of the United States during the 2016 election cycle, the poetry in this collection is largely inspired by his experiences on the road, and his need to write so palpable; it’s as though the words can’t leave him fast enough.
Borland wrote “Indiana” after his reading was moved off campus for promoting “gay poetry.” Breathtakingly spare, yet ripe with the painful irony of too little progress, the source text for this erasure is one of Borland’s own, “Flawed Families in Biblical Times,” which first appeared in his collection, "My Life As Adam" (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010). It was one of the poems he selected to read that evening.
His contemporary poetry—as it has in the past, for his relationships—examines the United States’ flagrant intolerance, largely embodied by the likes of candidate Donald Trump and the “Make America Great Again” movement, and explores the fragility of human life. “Chelsea Bomb,” the poem Borland wrote after the a pressure cooker bomb exploded in a New York City dumpster just blocks from him, is one of the most chilling in the collection, the final lines an evocative reminder of the very real, very tangible fears of our time.
you will worry
through the night
even when I call you
from a speeding car
you know I’m safe
you are full of fear
my backpack is full of books
— excerpted from "Chelsea Bomb," Tourist
Taken together, these three small books comprise fewer pages than most full-length prose titles. They are spare in their language, yet dynamic in their undertaking. They steal my breath and my heart. They are only a small slice of the beauty contained in the world of modern literature, and yet, in the landscape of economy—which, in the era of instant gratification, we seem so often to be moving deeper into—they demand so little and give so much in return. Do your brain a favor and pick up a tiny book. I promise, you won’t only finish it—you’ll be rushing back for more.