Laredo by Tony Rauch

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Laredo: Stories

Author: Tony Rauch

Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Rauch is a bizarro author, but even within that classification, he employs a writing style that is a bit left of center.  These stories are atypical enough that I consider them odd.

Availability: Published in 2008 by Eraserhead Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Day Two of Bizarro Week focuses on Tony Rauch’s Laredo. Before I begin, let me remind my readers that I am giving away a free copy of every book I will discuss this week. One lucky person will win a free copy of each of the five books and entering the drawing to win is as easy as leaving a comment. Read up on the contest rules here and comment wildly. Avidly, even.

I both enjoyed this collection and found it maddening. I like Rauch’s simple yet meandering approach to prose. His words at times are delightfully combined and the stories as a whole are far less insane than one often finds in bizarro fiction. But at times the stories, especially the first story in the collection, went on far too long for my tastes. And that is what is so maddening because even as I reread the stories I like the least, I could not find anything technically deficient with them.  In fact, I think the real maddening element was that I felt like these were stories I could have written myself and being unable to see them unfold as I wanted made me nervous.

So instead of force my tastes into a discussion wherein I end up panning a good story that simply was not my cup of tea or appearing as I would have wanted had I written it, I am going to discuss the stories that were, to my sensibilities, mostly excellent. This is a collection of stories that discusses longing, human frailty and occasionally gives the readers a happy ending when they least expect it. Little doses of magical realism, large doses of love-sick men, and stories that, had they been trimmed down a bit, would have been near perfect.

The story “I’m Afraid the President May Be Shrinking” is a sad little tale that does what it says on the tin. The President is shrinking. Before long, not even expert tailoring and excellent nutritional intervention can hide the fact that the President is getting smaller and smaller. In the interest of national security, the President ceases public appearances and the staff sees him, three-feet tall, depressed and restless, pacing the halls of the White House, muttering strange philosophies:

“Maybe… maybe we’re all freaks…” he would quietly tell himself. “In a million forms, in manners and ways we may never perceive. Each with a fabric and depth of quirks. In layers we may never unravel. We may never know ourselves so how can we know one another, how can we understand.”

Eventually the press breaks the story of his strange shrinking, and the public and government react, sure this was the work of American enemies. The First Lady came unhinged, citizens were concerned, but then things took on a different hue:

It was about this time that their spies had uncovered a similar phenomena. The scientists collated the data and reported back. It had occurred to a French aeropilot back in World War I. The pilot, a gorgeous devil, suddenly began shrinking one day – right out of the blue. They say it was a gradual thing – over weeks and months. They had to keep fashioning him smaller and smaller aeroplanes with progressively smaller gear.

[…]

They showed the president the chipped, grainy photos. The pilot had slick black hair that terminated in surf-like curls. His stare bore through you and 1000 years beyond – an intense, piercing ice blue, freezing everything he caught with it, as if seizing the world in his clinched fist, as if freezing time itself and taming fate in his icy gaze, dropping it to his knees with the intensity of his will.

These two passages shows that while Rauch can use the occasionally clunky word (I tend to think it should have “happened” to the French pilot rather than “occured” and surely he meant “clenched” instead of “clinched”), he mainly writes relatively simply, a trait I love, and in this simplicity he creates very vivid images. He engages in a crisp sort of prose that is recognizable to me in his use of em-dashes and complex yet streamlined sentences. It is how I write when I write prose. The President’s body continues to betray him and he loses confidence and becomes more interested in solitary activities. He writes a book about a President who turns purple. He takes up racing in a toy racing car.

He would race around the lawn, gritting his teeth, a twisted grimace on his face, almost as if he were attempting to drive his frustrations away, chasing them down or trying frantically to pull away from his grip. His racing garb consisted of a small red crash helmet, racing goggles, and gloves, a sporty red scarf which fluttered behind him, and a yellow t-shirt with insistent red letters spelling out: “I am a happy, well adjusted person.”

This passage really resonated with me for two reasons. One, I used to imagine my late cat Daisy would dress the same way, minus the t-shirt, were she to ride around on a cat-sized motorcycle, complete with a sidecar. Two, this image bore itself into my brain as I imagined the tiny President on the White House back lawn, speeding around in a car, trying to forget that with each passing day he would be smaller and smaller. But it is through writing about the purple President that the shrinking man finds meaning in his life, mirroring his misery in his parallel creation.

“Once I Saw a Pretty Girl (The Girl I Followed Today)” is the story of a man who is taken with a lovely young woman whom he watches walk into a used record shop. He feels compelled to follow her, as to do so seems to be a part of his fate. This story, in a bizarro fashion, explains the giddy, lovely feeling of falling in love at first site. He watches her as she wanders through the store, disrobing in an interesting way.

When I stepped inside, I noticed she was looking at the old Rod Stewart albums – the disco era Rod Stewart albums. I should’ve just turned around and walked out right there, but she did a curious thing – she pulled off her headband and stuffed it into one of Rod’s albums – into one of Rod’s older ones, into one of his better efforts, thankfully.

I started thumbing through the jazz albums – Chet Baker, Chet Baker, Chet Baker – and watching from the corner of my eye. At first I thought she was just going to adjust it and put it back on. I mean, what do I know about headbands? But she slid it into the album, then removed one of her long white stockings and put it into an old ABBA record. Then she slid off her other white stocking and tucked it into an old Blondie album. Good place for it, I thought. Sure. Of course. It belongs there. It’s meant to be.

She takes off her accessories and the skirt she is wearing, stuffing them into album sleeves. She leaves the store in a t-shirt and cut-off shorts and the narrator follows her but she gets on a bus and he loses sight of her. He is a sad romantic, going over in his head all the ways he may meet her again:

Maybe I’ll meet her at a party, somewhere out in that great promised nowhere. Maybe someday I’ll get to talk to her, maybe be introduced by a mutual friend, a sympathetic saint, someone to put in a good word, someone to give me the lowdown, the stink. Maybe someday she would tell me her name… That would be pretty great.

The sad thing in all of this is that the thought of her slowly got lost in the day, a little at the supermarket, a little at the laundry, places we could have shared, fun we could’ve had, until I had forgotten about her.

Had I been Queen Editor, this story would have ended here, but it doesn’t, and as I said above, that is my only quarrel with this book – the stories go on too long. Had the story about the President shrinking ended as he was racing on the back lawn, had this story ended when the narrator realized the girl was leaving his mind already, they would have been perfect. But this story does continue on and the narrator sees her walk into a bus station and follows her, and engages in some more romantic mental meandering:

Maybe she slipped into the restroom – maybe that’s why she wandered in. Or maybe she came in to get a soda from the vending machine and slipped out the back. The vending machines were old and forgotten here too. I bet this was the only place left in town that still served strawberry cola in bottles. I bet that’s why she was in here, to get a cold strawberry soda in a bottle and then wander back out the back door and down to the river for a quick swim. I bet that was what she was up to. It made perfect sense, you could tell she had good taste and all.

I was just trying to figure if I should join her down the block out back, or wait for her if she was in the restroom in here. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s the right thing to do. When will it be my time to do the right thing? When will it be my turn to know? I think I’ll sit here and wait for it.

This story ends better than it should but then again, I wonder why the needy, near-stalkerish narrator did not creep me out.  What should have been disturbing was very sweet as Rauch’s characterization makes it clear the narrator is just a romantic, sappy kid with no malice in him.

The final story from this collection I will discuss is “The Strange Green Moss of My Discontent.” I end with this story because for me it was perfect. The length was on mark, the story tight, the ideas conveyed neatly in a few pages without sacrificing the wordy, emotional longing that characterized most of the stories in this book. A patch of moss begins to form on a wall in a bachelor’s apartment. He searches for a cause but cannot find one, in either wayward water from the floor above or in his cleaning routine. He is a fanatical cleaner:

Cleaning was my number one priority and hobby. It was one of the few times I was actually content in life – when I was scrubbing away, able to control at least that minor aspect of life – and was just enjoying the Zen simplicity of it all – the joy of scrubbing, the ironing, the mopping. If I could I would vacuum the air itself.

As a neurotic who all too well knows the pleasures of excessive housekeeping, I knew that something in life had bullied the protagonist into a state of compulsive cleanliness. It’s soothing for us nervous folk to clean and clean and clean when life is less than we want it to be. That’s how you know when I am pretty well-off emotionally – when the floors are vacuumed but the baseboards are a little cruddy, when the bathroom counters are clean but the glass in the shower needs a good windexing. A sparkling house means I am not all together right at the moment. So it was no surprise when the protagonist begins to address someone who left him discontent, positing that the nasty, cauliflower-bumped moss is the manifestation of how empty and lonely he feels. But then he shifts gears and thinks:

Or maybe it was me, as if I had created this disgusting mass – too busy with cleaning, a cleaning that was meant to cleanse all the bad stuff in life, wash it all away, a purification that was meant to impress you, that other aspects of my life began to suffer – meeting new people, keeping things fresh, mixing things up, cultivating a variety of interests. But no, it was just the cleaning and my pompadour. Just those two things in my life. That was it for me. Just that.

Yep, the protagonist and I would have much to discuss during one of my cleaning binges. As he thinks these things, a transient in his neighborhood, a drifter who likes Shakespeare, looks at the protagonist through his window and shouts:

“Unceasing change turns the wheel of life… and so reality is shown in all its many forms.” Then he pulls away, back-stepping into the street, nodding his head slowly, his eyes fixed on me, never blinking, just boring intently into me, nodding a tight, intense stare. As he hits the street, he points a stiff arm accusingly at me and calls out, “Check it out if you have the courage…”

Oh, how the compulsive cleaners like to make life stand still. A clean room never changes. Clothes washed immediately after wear are returned to their original state. Those who clean, aside from the germophobes and those who spent a lot of time in the military, are raging against the passage of time and all the ravages it brings, all the losses, all the never-ending, tireless change.

He hears a neighbor throw a beer can at the transient and he looks outside his window, looking at his neighbors, watching them as they go about their days ( with this notable observation: “And next door to them Darren is climbing a ladder to put the finishing touches on a message he has just painted across the face of his two story: ‘Rock on with your bad self.’ Sage advice from one who knows.”) He watches these people and wishes he knew them and before he knows it, time, lots of time, is slipping away from him.

Though I only focused on three stories, there is much to like in this collection. When I say these stories beckoned to the part of me that always has a blue pencil in hand, that is no insult. I don’t want to correct crappy work. No, I longed to cut some stories off, to change a few words here and there, and I think that is because these stories spoke directly to the timorous, lonely parts of my heart wherein I feel I am shrinking or that I never know the right thing to do or I am spending far too much time Swiffering the ceiling and cleaning out behind the stove because the world outside seems unappealing to whatever is fueling my neuroticism. This collection at times seemed to me to be more bizarro-lite because it focused far more on basic human emotion than the strangeness that is often the crux of traditional bizarro. And yet even as this book verged into Miranda July territory (which is no bad thing, just to be clear), there was still the sense that these were not the sorts of stories one would ever read in a mainstream lit mag or in a collection put out by a large publishing house. They relied too heavily on magical realism, had too many words, and occupied a place that I associate with “the other” even as I find it hard to describe what such a place really is.

I really enjoyed this collection and recommend it to others. I would love it if those who have read it would tell me what they think of this book, as I wonder how minds dissimilar from mine interpreted these stories. I definitely look forward to reading Rauch’s other works.

19 thoughts on “Laredo by Tony Rauch

  1. This one sounds interesting, though not so much as yesterday’s book. I guess that’s because, other than the the shrinking president story, the stories don’t really seem all that bizarre based on your descriptions.

    1. Yeah, this was definitely a gently-odd collection. Fans of full-bore weirdness may find this a bit tame. From what I gather, Rauch’s later efforts are far more strange.

  2. I’m certainly familiar with the Sisyphean futility of housecleaning, but I’ve never thought to connect compulsive cleaning and the desire to hold back the passage of time and change. I know that OCD is connected in many sufferers with the fear of death, of their loved ones or themselves, so I guess it makes sense.

    I’m also just now reminded of how, when I visit old houses of famous dead people that have been preserved as they were when the person was alive, the rooms are invariably extremely neat and clean, which I always find funny because it’s unlikely that they didn’t have at least some garbage lying around. I wonder if that’s part of it, too — a room that looks like it’s never been lived in takes on a timeless quality, like a museum diorama. Maybe a super clean, neat room feels like immortality.

    1. Maybe a super clean, neat room feels like immortality.

      When I armchair psychoanalyze myself, I tend to think that is the cause of my occasional, intense cleaning frenzies.

  3. I guess the difference between a creepy stalker and a lovesick kid is a matter of perspective?

    I am also having a tough time picturing how legible a phrase like “I am a happy, well adjusted person” would be when put on a shirt scaled to the size of a Barbie doll…

    1. Lucky for the protagonist, the girl either doesn’t notice him creeping about or she doesn’t mind, so from her perspective it wasn’t too horrible.

      The President had expert tailors on staff. Perhaps it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine he also had expert silk-screeners on retainer as well. But even so I suspect you’d have to have the President right in front of you in order to read the shirt.

  4. I’ve read about half of the book. Been dipping in and out of it. I’ll probably read the rest now that you’ve reminded me of how good it is.

    I didn’t really think about the length of the stories when I read them, but they could probably do with a trim. What struck me is that we get the protagonist’s inner monologue as much as description of scenery or action. This differentiates Rauch’s work from other bizarros. I like this usp.

    I’m a bit of a litter bug, I’m sorry to say. Coincidentally, I was planning to clean my room tomorrow. Our cleaning cycles must be in sync.

    1. I think that inner monologue makes this an interesting book for people who only read literary fiction, because it has certain hallmarks of it. I think this would be a good gateway book into bizarro for the adventurous literary reader.

      I too am cluttered in places. My office never looks wholly tidy. But we have so many cats that I have to clean more than the average person or I would end up on the evening news. But when I go on a cleaning rampage, 99 times out of 100 it is fueled by neurotic anxiety.

  5. Very interesting. I love atypical authors, ones where you sometimes read and reread a line or paragraph to understand it better or get deeper meaning. I look forward to this one, hadn’t heard of it until now. Thanks for the review.

      1. My plan is to read every Bizarro Book. Strange Fiction, stories. Whateva the case I love reading odd books.

  6. It’s a plus when the words you are reading sound like poetry as well as tell a story. Even if you do need a road map to follow. hehe

  7. That brings up a good point – “strangeness” being a relative vibe.

    There are story samples of each of his books on his wordpress site
    bullet points of ‘Laredo’ cut and pasted from that site –
    – a man wakes to find his date’s hair has grown considerably.
    – you find a giant goldfish, floating in a hallway.
    – a supermarket is suddenly attacked by a group of Shriners.
    – someone wakes to find a giant egg next to them in their bedroom.
    – someone finds themselves in an old rowboat, floating through a foggy sky filled with other old rowboats.
    – two intergalactic bags of gaseous light interrupt someone’s morning squash game.
    – a man awakes to find he has grown several really really long arms.
    so strange? extreme strange? not-so-strange? not strange enough?
    maybe there just isn’t a lot of shock to it just for shock sake? mostly odd things happening to people.

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