Crude Sketches Done in Quick Succession
By Andrew Brininstool
Queen’s Ferry Press, 2015
164 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
Short stories are teaser trailers of what-ifs and could-bes. They are alternative pasts and predicted futures. In Crude Sketches Done in Quick Succession by Andrew Brininstool, they are portraits of a life of the entirely possible and truly dangerous. The stories within are not ripped from front page headlines but rather the stories buried near the funnies. They contain characters that are chased by the Oklahoma Commission for Beautification and Image Promotion, receive wooden ducks and roofing shingles in the mail, and spy on their elderly neighbor’s body with said neighbor’s husband. They live in a world we know too well or perhaps not well enough. Brininstool images a world we ignore or miss by mere seconds. Welcome to Norman Rockwell’s Bizarro World.
There lies a risk in creating a short story collection. It can showcase a limited toolbox of literary magic tricks or miss the true “story” by a few lines. There is immense pressure in short story writing, especially now. But Brininstool easily assures his readers that he has overcome those risks and obstacles. All of the nine stories within this collection are everything but crude sketches. Stories like “Kankakee” and “Stick Figures” are case studies in characters in duress, whether by foreign mail or by love stricken roommates. “Young Arsonists in Love” and “Mirabeau, the Truant” have quick moving and overt plots but the true story lies between the lines and pages of the stories. Each strike a different nerve, each shows a different reality eerily familiar to one of our very own.
In an interview with Glenn Shaheen, Brininstool discusses “Big Eyes, Wide Smiles,” a story that follows the Thelma & Louise meets Bonnie and Clyde couple of a sex-addicted beauty queen and maxillofacial surgeon. He says “You cannot make this kind of thing up, but maybe you can come close. I started throwing together dissonant images, notions. A beauty queen, a surgeon. A motel in Oklahoma. An English luxury sedan. I wanted to see what could be made out of signs that do not belong together.” This is the sole pattern you can see throughout the entire collection, although “Big Eyes” is shows it in the most visible way. The story itself isn’t “bizarre” for the sake of simply being so. Gina, the product of over beautification and pageantry, succumbs to her own vices. Ron, our disenfranchised and beleaguered hero of sorts (a term used loosely) stumbles along with her, trying to do one right thing since this debauchery filled journey began. Everything that doesn’t belong together somehow finds a way to stick together. It is comical in a manner that Donald Barthelme would appreciate, with this commission chasing our protagonists like the police officers chasing Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers.
Brininstool throws us into these stories a pot of cold water like a frog and slowly turns the heat up. “Horticulture,” placed late in the collection, does this perfectly. Wes and Karen live their lives next to the now abandoned McGutcheon house. They’re life is balanced, the suburban sea is calm. When Carl and Regina move in, their world is suddenly challenged at every level. Conversations and intentions don’t go as planned. There is a subtle friction between the couples. It’s Raymond Carver’s “Neighbors” revisited in the best way. Wes is the driving force, wanting to make things the way they deserve to be. “It is a desire to get it right, Karen thought, watching Wes wash the dishes and re-press his tie for work. If he were to spill coffee on The Tennessean, he would stop to buy a fresh copy. Karen knows he grew up an army brat; by the time he was twelve he’d lived in no less than nine places. He believes in homeownership, Karen thought.” This drive combined with the summer heat and the resulting appreciation of Carl and Regina result in an incredible ending, wondering if they, like the readers, ever had a chance to feel the heat rise.
Brininstool isn’t showing us the light and dark sides of humanity, he’s showing humanity at its most raw and emotional. It’s most human. Life is about the moments we’re not quite ready for or catch us off guard. We don’t expect our neighbors to join in on our teenage voyeurism, we don’t expect the house to still be standing after begging to have it burned, we don’t expect wooden ducks to appear on our doorstep from strangers. This collection is a myriad of ideas and pieces that on the surface shouldn’t fit. While others may use this opportunity to bring readers in by sheer outrageousness, Brininstool has a purpose. It’s about asking questions. Fiction is just that. It’s not about whether or not you can make these kinds of things up, it’s about how close you can get to it.