By Matt Tompkins
Ooligan Press, 2019
206 Pages, $16.00
Review by Michael Barron
One of the first stories in Matt Tompkins’ new collection Odsburg (Ooligan Press, 2019), “Seeking Advice And/Or Assistance Re: Mountain Lions” introduces us to his imaginative — but simultaneously restrained — world and sense of humor. An unnamed Odsburger man who discovers that his basement is filled with mountain lions takes the situation in stride, viewing it more as an annoying chore rather than an impossible phenomenon. And at least they’re on the other side of that door.
“I remember thinking, what could that be? I peeked through the narrow gap underneath the door in the kitchen and I saw big tan paws and sharp claws and fangs and fur and whiskers and several large, pink noses… They were scratching from the inside — the basement side, where they were. I could hear them from the other side, the outside-of-the-basement side, where I was. So at least we were on opposite sides of the door, the mountain lions and me. I guess that’s what you call a silver lining.”
The stories of Odsburg are compiled by Wallace Jenkins-Ross, the world’s first and only socio-anthropo-lingui-lore-glogist (that’s one way of saying he collects stories). His project frames Tompkins’ book as Jenkins-Ross arrives in the small town of Odsburg, Washington to gather and publish the community’s folklore, urban legends, history and gossip into a single, very odd volume.
Jenkins-Ross finds Odsburg a strange place, but one that doesn’t seem to faze the people who live there. While most of us simply need to worry about their basements being taken over by cockroaches and mice, the residents of Odsburg also need to worry about infestations of mountain lions, and much more. A man gets laser eye surgery and now the whole world appears to be on fire. A couple eat all of their belongings and eventually their entire house.
At first glance, Odsburg appears to fall neatly into the “supernatural quaint town” sub-genre, alongside Twin Peaks, Stranger Things, and Gravity Falls. There are several tales suggesting that supernatural forces are at work in this small Pacific Northwest town.
However, as we delve deeper into Tompkins’ world, we find that the hidden lives of ordinary people are far more intriguing than the paranormal. If “Re: Mountain Lions” introduces the world, then “About Neighbors,” which is told in the form of a pamphlet tacked to the public library’s bulletin board, introduces us to the town’s people. In the introduction to this story, Jenkins-Ross states that in the original document all the letters were capitalized, which gave a “sense of shouting.”
“CITIZENS OF ODSBURG!!!! DO YOU THINK YOU KNOW YOUR FELLOW CITIZENS OF ODSBURG???? YOUR FELLOW ODSBURGERS???? THINK AGAIN!!!! YOU DON’T KNOW THEIR LIFES. THEIR DREAMS. THEIR HOPES AND FEARS. THEIR SORROWS. THEIR EXPERIENCES!!! HERE ARE SOME THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT YOUR OWN NEIGHBORS!!!! JUDGE NOT LEST YE BE JUDGED!!!!!!!”
The pamphlet then goes on to reveal that an old married couple dote over their seven miniature French poodles because they were never able to have children of their own, that the local mail carrier is a certified genius, and the real reason one of Odsburg’s citizens named his children Buttface 1 and Buttface 2.
The stories continue in this manner, in forms including audio interviews, pamphlets, diary entries, a cease and desist letter (addressed to Jenkins-Ross himself), a collection of “A woman walks into a bar” jokes, a prayer, a transcription of a poem from the great beyond, a standardized test booklet and the ingredients on a candy wrapper, some even appear to be from scraps of paper that appear to be trash or objects that are just lying around.
It’s a collection that seems to be made, literally, out of the town itself.
Odsburg, while enjoyable as a collection of supernatural tales, is perhaps more a tribute to the nature of writing itself — that writers, much like Jenkins-Ross, are better served by the tossed-off litter, the doodled napkins, the abandoned flyers and junk mail, for story material.
Socio-anthropo-lingui-lorology might very well be a field of study Jenkins-Ross made up, but there is something to it. The contents of our lost-and-founds compile a bizarre, but perhaps more accurate portrait of a community than any city hall archive could. Though it’s not quite the X-Files, the quotidian can sometimes be as thrilling, as other-worldly.