Roses are Red, Violets are Stealing Loose Change from my Pockets While I Sleep
By David S. Atkinson
Literary Wanderlust, 2018
$13.99, 256 Pages
Review by Michael Barron

In the acknowledgements section to his perfectly titled book Roses are Red, Violets are Stealing Loose Change from My Pockets While I Sleep, David S. Atkinson mentions Monty Python’s Flying Circus as an influence. Just by skimming through the collection, a casual reader can see how the British Comedy group affected the author’s surreal sense of humor. Like Monty Python, Roses are Red takes joy in deconstructing reality and stuffing it full of irreverent scenes and characters until the viewers/readers have no idea what to do but laugh.

When I first sat down with the book my knee-jerk reaction was to find some kind of underlying meaning to the madness. For example, I assumed the opening story, “There’s a Rabbit Living Under my Kitchen Sink…” contained allusions to mental illness.

The rabbit knows a secret passage under the sink that leads into my walls. During the day he reads a copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary he has in his nest, but at night he slides on his belly into the secret passage and slithers around. I can hear it. I can hear him chewing on celery that the government sends him. He slides into the space in the wall behind my bed and whispers to me while I sleep.

But as I read on, I soon discovered that there appears to be little substantial symbolism or message behind the stories. I don’t mean this as a criticism. Atkinson’s twisted tales weren’t written to shed light on the human condition or provide any understanding of our place in the universe. He’s asking us to join his absurd party and play along with him.

Often times, the brilliantly imaginative ideas behind each story get augmented with pop cultural and celebrity references including cameos by Ross Perot, Eugene O’Neill, Don Rickles, the Keebler Elves, Mark Summers and Pharaoh Burt Reynolds. Even the severed head of Andy Griffith makes an edifying appearance in the story “Rain Drops and Roses and Beer-Battered Fish Shoved Into Video Rental Return Boxes.”

Ten days into the conference, I began to wish I’d read the materials I’d seen tattooed on the severed head of Andy Griffith a bit more carefully. After all, the fact it listed an opening date but not a closing one suggested it would go on for eternity. What else would that indicate? I should have noticed. I’d been warned just like I’d been warned not to use my Craftsman lawnmower for internal purposes.

It was my own fault.

But these stories aren’t just Pythonesque. The collection (which includes over a hundred and twenty works of flash fiction) contains passages that are reminiscent of Naked Lunch, Gregory Corso, John Dies at the End, Kurt Vonnegut and David Lynch.

Specific stories to check out are, “Ideas: Where to Get Them and What to do When they Won’t Leave,” and “Kidnapping with Margaret Thatcher.” These are two of Atkinson’s most “grounded” stories in that they have distinct beginnings, middles and ends, and “ideas” come the closest to having a point. More importantly, they are also two of the funniest in that they do the best at setting up the characters’ bizarre situations and giving us the most rewarding payoff.

While reading the collection, I was reminded of a novella I not-so-seriously wrote in high school. It was a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey told from the point of view of a duck who finds himself stuck down the pants of a guy working at Taco Bell. The Cyclops was a one-eyed redneck, the Lotus Eaters were stoner co-workers, and I even incorporated a genius CVS brand jellybean and an emotionally dependent toaster into the mix. I never had any intention of publishing the work. I just wanted to write something that was pure imagination. Maybe I’m projecting, but I think Atkinson is doing something similar with Roses are Red. He channels his id directly onto the page, giving us exactly the kind of madness many of us need in our daily lives.

Roses are Red is essentially a literary equivalent to a Far Side collection. It’s a work for those of us with bumblebee-sized attention spans, a collection of bite-sized chunks of madness for us to enjoy between real-world chores, or the sort of thing you want to keep in your back pocket so you can flip through it, picking out stories at random while you wait for the bus or stand in line at Chipotle. In our hectic, overly scheduled world, there is something refreshing about undiluted fantasy that is free from rules or reason.