Book: Bucket of Face
Author: Eric Hendrixson
Type of Book: Fiction, novella, bizarro
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Humanoid fruit and a mob tomato obsessed with Michael Jackson, for starters.
Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press for the New Bizarro Author Series in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Ah yes, a new Bizarro Week begins. And as with all my themed weeks here on IROB, I am giving away free books. This time, I want to see if I can include the contest instructions on a different entry rather than clutter up the discussions with all my site business. So check out the contest rules here and comment away!
Eric Hendrixson got the shaft when I did my New Bizarro Author Series reviews earlier this year. I got a copy of his book later than the others and it was just luck of the draw that he didn’t get included. So I decided to start this Bizarro Week with his book, but before I get started, I feel the need to remind my readers that the books in the New Bizarro Author Series are an audition of sorts. Eraserhead Press gives these authors a chance to show their skills in both writing and encouraging an audience to buy their books. The NBAS writers will only get a contract to write more bizarro books if they sell enough of their “audition” books. So if this review makes this book seem like an appealing read to you, I encourage you to buy a copy of this book and give Hendrixson a chance to continue writing his lunatic tales.
The more I read bizarro, the more I realize that in many respects, these books are retelling stories we already know, using the normal as a framework upon which they build their intensely strange stories. I think that is why I don’t understand it when people look me in the eyes and say, “Bizarro is just too weird for me.” Seriously, many bizarro books are a mild inversion of the same plots we read, watch and inhale on a daily basis, except with more interesting characterization, a better use of pop culture details and a willingness to engage in subversive surrealism. These books are the logical evolution of storytelling wherein the core, the heart, if you will, of the story remains the same but the details evolve. Bucket of Face is a fine example of that evolution.
Bucket of Face‘s framework is the story of a bystander who gets wrapped up in a Mafia-like criminal world and finds himself in over his head. Add in an insecure but scheming girlfriend, an interesting cop team and an unusual hitman, and you’ve got yourself a show worth pitching to a network. Cast a faded Brat Packer in one of the roles and, hell, it’ll be on Fox next year. But of course, that’s just the core. What Hendrixson does with the details makes this a wonderfully absurd and very funny book.
The book begins as Charles, our protagonist, is editing his own Wikipedia entry, listening to acorns screaming as they fall from the trees. You see, due to a bizarre accident over a decade ago, some fruit is now larger and sentient. The acorns are screaming because they know the moment they hit the ground the squirrels will be waiting for them (and what is it with NBAS writers and squirrels and Pulp Fiction references). His kiwi fruit girlfriend, Sarah, is eating fruit salad (she explains that it’s not cannibalism unless she eats kiwi fruit and since Charles eats mammals, he should get over his squeamishness). He can only have sex with Sarah when one of them buys flowers, because that’s just how you do it with fruit. Charles works at a doughnut store and has ducked out of work frequently, claiming to have unusual religious beliefs:
“So, what’s the holiday this time?”
“Zzymer,” Charles said. “It’s a holy day commemorating the Accosterite victory over the Kylabites in the valley of Zimmer. On this day, my people eat tacos in commemoration. It’s also when the Philistines invented tennis.”
Yeah, Charles is a Fifth Day Philistine.
Charles, who is largely without ambition aside from a desire to win the lottery, is sort of whiny. He hates the cheap cigarettes he is forced to smoke. He hates his place of work and the customers he has to wait on. And he shares these petty hatreds, and others, as often as he can. But far from being annoying, Charles is a passive, Linklater-style sad sack whose travails are more amusing than irritating. Like when he finds a dead meter maid on Sarah’s car as he is trying to leave for work. He doesn’t want to upset Sarah or risk her getting into trouble if she decided to call the police upon finding it, so he shifts the dead body to another car, as you do, and goes to work. It’s just another tiresome detail in Charles’ life.
He relieves his co-worker at the doughnut shop, lights a Quality Light, and reads newspapers behind the counter. Then a banana and an apple, Mafia fruits, each carrying something, come into the shop and change his life (and that sounds like the set up for a bad joke: “A banana and an apple walk into a doughnut shop…”):
Even to Charles, it was obvious what was supposed to happen. The guy with the briefcase was supposed to leave with the bucket, and the guy with the bucket was supposed to leave with the briefcase. This kind of thing happened at Papa’s Doughnut Dinette eight times a week, but for some reason, these two fruits just couldn’t pull it off. They kept talking in low tones, muttering in a vaguely threatening manner. Charles got bored with them and went to check if there was anything to do in the kitchen. He was in the back, filling jelly doughnuts, when the guns went off.
Yes, the Mafia apple and banana, unable to come to a reasonable exchange, had shot and killed each other. And instead of calling the police, Charles takes the matter in hand and steals the pack of Dunhills one of the fruits had on him, because cheap cigarettes is one of Charles’ larger grievances in life. Only once the finer cigarettes are secured does he grab the bucket and the briefcase. The briefcase is full of money, and instead of feeling a heavy sense of dread knowing he has mob money in front of him, Charles is elated that he will finally have the money to take Sarah to a warmer climate. They are Zimbabwe bills but it looks like a fortune to Charles. He hides them before the cops come in to order their doughnuts and coffees, items that complete their clichéd image, items that they will throw out later for more epicurean fare. The slumped fruits look like drunks and the cops are none the wiser. That is, until they notice the apple juice on the floor:
The veteran officer shook his head. “That’s the most disgusting thing I have ever seen.” He turned to Charles accusingly. “Did you serve apple juice to that apple? That could be a hate crime.”
“Oh no,” Charles said. “No. No.”
“Well, it’s fucking revolting. I mean, how would you feel if you walked into a bar and they gave you a nice pint of human blood? Would you say, ‘Oh thank you bartender for this nice pint of human blood?’ No. You would have a complaint against him. There’d be arrests and lawsuits.”
After proving the shop does not sell apple juice and giving the cops their coffee for free, Charles ushers them out. The cops, after tossing their pastries and burnt but free coffee, drive five miles under the speed limit to screw with other motorists and then notice two other fruits up to no good at a Denny’s. The cops are major characters in the book but I’m not going to go into detail about them because of time and space constraints. Just know they are erudite men who ape the stereotypical roles of cops when in the presence of others. To add to the musical obsessions in this book, one of the cops engages in a cross-dressing Beatles fetish (or maybe it’s cosplay), so there’s that for the Beatles fans out there. Mortimer and Mayflower are, like most of the characters in Bucket of Face, remarkably and ridiculously realized despite the brevity of the book.
With the cops gone, Charles moves the fruits to the freezer, moves the bucket and the briefcase, and cleans up. He renders the fruit corpses and makes doughnut fillings out of them. He goes home to Sarah, nervous, fretting Sarah, who hates her face and is worried Charles will leave her for a human woman, unable to accept how much Charles loves her. He hides the bucket and the briefcase in the closet and goes to bed, only to be awakened when Sarah confronts him with the briefcase full of Zimbabwean money.
“Do you know the value of the Zimbabwe dollar?”
“It’s like a regular dollar, but from Zimbabwe. I’m not a racist.”
Yep, Charles has stolen a briefcase of money from dead Mafia fruit that could not buy the day-old doughnuts he forgot to bring home to his girlfriend, forcing her to eat very stale pastries for breakfast.
“So what’s in the bucket anyway?” She wiped her mouth with a paper napkin.
“I don’t know.” He poured himself a cup of coffee.
“So you don’t know what is was but you brought it home anyway? Have you ever wondered how epidemics happen?”
“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I thought it might be worth something.”
“Why would you think a bucket someone forgets in a doughnut shop would be worth money? I’m just glad you don’t work in an abortion clinic.”
The above passage is a litmus test. If you found this as funny as I did, then you really need to buy this book.
Then Sarah and Charles investigate the bucket and find, as the title of the book implies, a bunch of faces. And given how strapped for money the two are, and how much Sarah dislikes her looks, you can see where the plot is going, as the two descend into the murky world of face trafficking. But even though it may be clear where it is going, I’m going to stop discussing the plot as it involves Sarah and Charles so as not to spoil too much, but frankly even if I did spoil it, the cast of characters and the ludicrousness of this alternative world would be more than enough to keep reading.
And now enters the hitman, the enforcer, the dreaded tomato with a chip and an epaulet on his shoulder. People often think tomatoes are vegetables, not fruit, and he has to work hard for respect. One might think he has to work even harder for respect since he is a tomato who dresses like Michael Jackson. His associate, a dim strawberry, is on a Sylvester Stallone trip. Sent to find what happened to the two fruits, the money and the faces, he shows his true colors as a thug and as an MJ fanatic as he roughs up Anakin at the doughnut shop:
Roma picked up his coffee. “You don’t want to be starting something. Do you want to be starting something?” He threw the coffee. Ani’s hands went up to his face…
What ensues is a torture scene worthy of Reservoir Dogs, except noses are at a premium rather than ears. Much plot happens, so much that as I scrolled through my e-reader I was surprised that the sheer volume of details Hendrixson included in this book did not hit me when I read it at first (this is the first book I have discussed after reading it on a Kindle – I find it fascinating that all the passages I had highlighted as I read it are not the ones I found worthy of quoting in this discussion). More bad things happen to fruit, Roma still has not found the briefcase or bucket, and he has to prepare for a hard day tracking down Charles and the purloined items:
A short nap would do him some good. He set the alarm clock and laid out his clothing for when he awoke: the red jacket with a white tee and black chinos. He opened the top drawer of the dresser and solemnly laid out the glove. He hesitated for a moment, but yes. It was time for the glove.
Oh yeah, shit just got real. Roma’s gonna wear the glove.
The plot continues onward, with Roma explaining why Michael Jackson is quite literally his god. Cops, Roma, Charles and Sarah all collide in a small literary explosion and everyone meets their fate, some sad, some expected, some rather touching. I feel strange right now because I want to talk about all sorts of things, like the theatrical cops, Roma and his final quest that takes him to Forest Lawn Cemetery, how things end for Charles and Sarah but I can’t. In fact, there is no way for me in all my verbosity to briefly discuss all the quirks of the various B-characters. Strawberry and his Stallone impersonation. The nasty old women in the apartment front office. Hendrixson really manages to include a host of characters and bizarre details in his alternate universe and yet gives all of them life and full realization. In a book this short, it is no small accomplishment to deftly arrange plot, pop culture details, and numerous characters into a read that never feels crunched or rushed.
So since I cannot discuss too much more of the plot, I will end my discussion with the some of the puns Hendrixson includes throughout the book.
From a scene where Roma is talking to his henchman, Strawberry:
Thick as he was, he knew only somebody like Roma would give him a fair shake.
From a scene where Charles was trying to use humor to placate the insecure Sarah:
He regretted teasing her. A girl like her is soft, easily bruised.
From a scene where Charles finds the mess left behind at the doughnut shop after Roma has brutally extracted information from Anakin:
When he looked up, he could see a message written on the wall next to the door. The message was low, maybe three feet from the ground, but the letters were each six inches high. It looked like someone had painted them in a frosting knife. Charles stared at the letters. “I’ve been hit by what? What the hell is a smoothie criminal?” he muttered.
Chapter 19 is called “Tomato, Catch Up,” which is both punny and another reference to Tarantino, neatly covering two bases at once.
While all of the NBAS books I have read recently are quite good, this one strikes me as being the one that seemed a perfect fit for me. Grounded lunacy is actually very hard to pull off, and so is writing with an eye to humor. Hendrixson, in 92 pages, created an alternate universe with five fully-fleshed characters, several subplots, a wealth of pop culture references, using extremely clever prose. Hendrixson is a writer we need to read more from, so I encourage all of you to buy this book. It was a fun ride, from beginning to end.
So leave comments, dear readers, to enter the drawing for the five free books, and tune in tomorrow for a look at Tony Rauch’s Laredo.