Reviewed by Christopher Citro
In his 1928 Dada short feature Ghosts Before Breakfast, Hans Richter creates a world where it's impossible to simply wake up, get dressed, and have breakfast. A necktie will come to life and crawl about on one's head. One's hat will lift off and join a flock of other hats flying around, just out of reach. This is a world in which Anthony Tognazzini, author of I Carry A Hammer In My Pocket For Occasions Such As These, would comfortably sip his morning orange juice.
Published by BOA Editions in their American Reader Series, Tognazzini's debut collection is the well-respected poetry press's first foray into fiction. This lush hybrid of short shorts and prose poems mixes fifty-seven stories of differing lengths a la Lydia Davis. These are stories with one foot in the mundane everyday world and the other in the fantastic and grotesque—with objects and characters swooping unexpectedly between like hats through the morning air.
The collection begins, appropriately, with a section entitled "Ever Since This Morning." Here, images of awakening after late nights and shaky dreams blend with the sharp colors of a new day. Again and again the quotidian world is invaded by chaos and absurdity. The theme comes most alive in dialogue, when everyday, terse utterances bump against ones more appropriate to hothouse Victorian versifying, calling to mind such American surrealists as James Tate and Russell Edson. In the story "In Love With Nowhere To Go," a man awakes hung-over to find all his furniture stacked in the kitchen. He remembers he's in love with a woman named Jane, and then inexplicably heads out to visit a drive-thru liquor store called "Stop and Sop."
The microphone at the drive-thru was designed as a plastic beer bottle.
"Hello," I said.
"Murf, murf," said the lady.
I told her she'd better articulate herself or else.
She said, "From this blanket of ashes, our Life, springs not one but a thousand dancing angels, their hearts dappled flags of moonlight, their wings slim and silvery."
After this poetic exchange, the man drinks two bottles of whisky while driving, blacks out, and returns home the next morning. Remembering that he's in love, he crawls into his couch, balanced on the kitchen counter, and falls asleep. Having come full circle—by way of cars, liquor, vomit, and toothpaste—we have about as coherent a portrait of a day in the life of a young man in love as one could wish. In the end, the absurdity seems more than the means to an end, it's the end itself—a psychological point acute in its refusal to deliver anything resembling a tidy analysis of the foibles of love.
In section two, "Second Thoughts," characters react with sudden violence to the various interruptions of their routines, as in the Daniil Kharms-like title story, in which a speaker is asked for a loan and responds by reaching for his hammer. We meet couples attempting to survive "love's ever-ragged disequilibrium," such as in "Accident by Escalator," in which a man gets pulled into an escalator and permanently flattened to a grooved pancake. His girlfriend puts up with this for a while but ultimately leaves. Thankfully, along comes a new girlfriend—"a doormat named Rebecca."
In the third section's "Gainesville, Oregon—1962,” Tognazzini's absurdist axe reveals a rotten core to an otherwise tranquil, suburban family. We start in a safe, "Leave it to Beaver" world and end with underage group sex, a drug-overdosed mother in a coma, a liquored-up neighbor boy dead in the shrubbery, and a dispirited father pulling up the drive after first having run over the family cat. This violence—the rending of reality that characterizes most of the stories in the book—can at times feel forced, and the sexuality sophomoric, but the overall effect is one of revelation. And also joy—these stories are fun as hell to read, full of humor, lyricism, and playfulness.
The stories of the final section, "Gift Exchange," culminate, surprisingly, in resolution and rest (often in the form of a nap)—in rebirth even—though always in a world haunted with mystery and loss. The book ends, as do so many of the stories, with the breakdown of simplistic understandings into a less comforting, but more realistic, recognition of the danger and chaos that underlie everyday life. In the story "Same Game," an adult on his weary way to work in the morning is thrown a ball by a child playing in the street.
"You look sad. Where are you going?"One can almost hear the hats swooping overhead, chasing the rising sun.
"To work," I told her. "Everyday I take the bus, same time. See my briefcase. It's an adult thing. When you grow up, you'll see. It's not sad. You ride the bus, work, come home atnight. Like that." I tossed the ball back, "You?" I asked. "Where're you going?"
The built-in reflector on the girl's sneaker gleamed. She said, "I'm going to be brave in ways you won't recognize." Then she pocketed her racquetball and ran away from me.