by Michael Czyzniejewski
The stories in this collection — and there a lot of ’em, two dozen in about two hundred pages — reveal over and over the impossibility of real people’s lives. Our lives, only not exactly us, just us enough to recognize, wonder, and wince.
Many of them have the kind of weirdness that comes from supposing “what if?” the world really did work just a little bit differently, and you could go streetfishing, names disappeared, and dictionaries lied. In “The Summer Without Grown-Ups” the narrator’s dad falls apart, his friend comes to visit and winds up with girl he liked… and his grandmother has turned into a bird. There are other kinds of stories too, ones that play by real world rules (the unexplainable pain of fathers in “Wind”, the not right but not bizarrely wrong husband in “Valentine”).
I found the ones somewhere in the middle most fascinating. The title story is one of those — it reveals just how enormous the unsayable can grow between married folks, the size of a real elephant. “B Positive” is another, with its love, revenge, mayhem, and bears. A husband invites all the men his wife has had affairs with over to their house for two weeks instead of going away on vacation in “Green” and they all show up.
Not all of Czyzniewjewski’s characters are likeable (the wife in “Sleepmurder” comes to mind) but they are all interesting. The narrator in “Finding My Werewolf Mask in the Hide-a-Bed, July 4, 1994” is a jackass, but the bitterness at the end of his story is still strikes a chord:
“Everyone figures out, sooner or later, that you should just blow the rocket off as soon as you get it, that you can always get another rocket, and even if you don’t, you’ll live. That things never really change because of a special day, of anything you’ve waited for, because of some pretty light up in the sky.”
I may be sorry I’m starting down this metaphorical path, but I think if Czyzniewjewski’s language were a kind of orange juice, it would be pulpy. He’s playful, but not fussy. He’s the fresh-squeezed real deal, not the pasteurized stuff, even if his characters are mostly the type who’d get regular OJ on sale at the grocery store, maybe in a frozen can of condensed Minute Maid. For example, “Hapax Legomenon” (see, playful) opens with this line: “The last thing I remember before blacking out was the phantom opossum pissing on my leg.” (Not fussy.) In that story, a would-be golf course owner/heir is repeatedly beaten up by the go-cart guys.
I really enjoyed reading this collection. It’s different. That’s fitting, given how many of the stories are about wishing things were different, but not completely devoid of crazy bursts of hope.
Note: It bugged me I had no idea how to pronounce this guy’s name. I knew I was just doing murder to it in my head. Turns out, you say it Chiz-ny-EV-ski.