Author: Shane Hinton
Type of Book: Fiction, short stories, flash fiction
Why Do I Consider This Book Is Odd: Because it’s not immediately clear which Shane Hinton wrote this book.
Availability: Published by Burrow Press in 2015, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Shane Hinton has a bit of Jon Konrath in him, or maybe Jon has a bit of Shane in him. Or maybe they both have a bit of someone I have yet to read in them both. But this collection shows that Hinton has an eye and ear for the absurd in daily life, though he ventures into the speculative more than Konrath does. And I only mention Konrath because I found myself chugging NyQuil Cough formula like it was soda the other day and ended up having a bad dream about that infant-mouse-covered snake on the front of this book. In my dream the snake had charmed the mice like a sort of reptilian Charles Manson and they were ready to do his bidding, except I also think the snake was female. A lot of it I’ve forgotten, which is probably a good thing. But I did have the nightmare. That much I do know.
Before I begin to discuss this book in earnest, I want to mention that there is some interesting meta going on in this collection, and meta I have seen in other books recently. I don’t think it’s happening enough to call it a trend, but this summer I managed to read three books wherein the characters were named for the authors. Hank Kirton named a couple of characters in his short story collection Bleak Holiday after himself. Brian Whitney’s Raping the Gods sports a protagonist named Brian Whitney, which may be because the book is autobiographical (and I am afraid to find out if it is indeed autobiographical). And every male protagonist in Pinkies is Shane Hinton. One story boasts dozens of Shane Hintons.
I can feel the desire to go on at extraordinary lengths rising up because I genuinely enjoyed this collection, so I’m going to limit myself to the stories I liked best. Every story works on some level – there wasn’t a clunker to be found – but I decided to limit myself to four of the sixteen stories in this slim volume. Let us all cross our fingers that such a measure keeps my verbosity more or less in check, but I think it’s safe to say this is going to be very long, because this is a good collection and because this is the first book review on Odd Things Considered and I feel self-indulgent with celebratory bookishness.
The first story I want to share is “All the Shane Hintons.” In this story, Shane Hinton is concerned that his wife regrets her choice in Shane Hintons and wants to be married to one of several more successful or good-looking Shane Hintons. He sends all the Shane Hintons he can find a questionnaire:
Do you realize that your initials are the same as the first two letters of your first name?
Do people always call you Sean? How do you respond?
Has my wife tried to contact you?
Of course I trust my wife, but sometimes it’s good to make sure.
Shane Hinton sends a five dollar check enclosed with the questionnaire to the Shane Hinton who is a “charity marathon organizer in Tennessee.” That Shane Hinton replies to the questionnaire:
“About six months ago, your wife sent a check for twenty dollars. People always call me Sean. It kind of hurts my feelings.”
One of the Shane Hintons suggests they all organize a Shane Hinton festival. They could have a barbecue, have races, and just generally live it up. A group e-mail is sent out and a healthy number of Shane Hintons agree it would be nice to meet. A college basketball coach, the marathon organizer, an insurance salesman, among others. But what do they do about the Shane Hinton who is in prison for rape?
We set the date a couple of months before the rapist is released from prison. We don’t necessarily want to exclude him, and several of us believe strongly that people deserve second chances, but it also makes us uncomfortable to think about that guy around our wives and daughters. The health insurance salesman is bringing his grandmother. We agree that we don’t want the rapist Shane Hinton around his grandmother.
Probably nothing would happen, we tell each other, but it’s best to be on the safe side. A bunch of us really do believe in second chances.
Shane Hinton finds that even though most of the other Shanes agreed to help, the burden of arrangements fall on his and his wife’s shoulders, but they pull it off. Initially, it seems like the rapist Shane Hinton will be the least of their worries when Shane Hinton of Kansas City, occupation vague but probably a drug dealer, shows up to Shane’s house a week before the Shane Hinton festival. Kansas City Shane seems to think he was intended to stay with Shane and his wife so Shane Hinton scrambles to clean up the guest room, which reeks of dog.
The drug dealer Shane Hinton doesn’t seem to mind. Packages start coming in the mail addressed to him, and he won’t let me watch when he opens them. At night he sits on the back porch and smokes something out of a light bulb.
“He makes me feel itchy,” I say to my wife in bed, quietly because our house is small and sound carries well.
“He’ll be gone in a few days,” my wife says. I curl up next to her.
“Why do you smell like Kansas City?” I ask. She pretends to be asleep.
The day finally comes for the festival to begin and they seem to have a good time. The group bicycle ride starts late and this seems to be an omen for things to come.
A Shane Hinton from Maine, who is a lighthouse attendant, hits a loose board and goes flying over the handlebars. Two more Shane Hintons run over him and also hit the ground. Most of the rest are able to stop in time, but just barely. The lighthouse attendent probably has a broken clavicle, says a nurse Shane Hinton from South Carolina. We decide that’s enough bicycle riding…
And it gets more uncomfortable from there.
Back at the picnic area someone is siting with my wife at the registration table. They are the only two there. Everyone else went on the bicycle ride.
When we get closer, I recognize him from his mug shot.
He isn’t supposed to be out yet, I think. He must know what I’m thinking because he says, “Good behavior,” then winks at my wife. She looks uncomfortable.
None of the Shane Hintons admit to inviting him.
The day recovers a bit. A restaurant owner Shane Hinton wins the barbecue contest. They post guards at the bouncy castle so that the rapist Shane Hinton doesn’t end up in there unsupervised. But they have to cancel the three-legged race because no one wants to be paired with the rapist Shane Hinton. While they are arguing about this topic, the rapist Shane Hinton is caught spying on the insurance salesman Shane Hinton’s grandmother as she uses the bathroom in a public restroom. A fight is barely averted and a pall is cast over the rest of the festival.
The sun goes down and the Shane Hintons set off a few half-hearted fireworks before the park ranger tells them to stop. They pack up their picnic baskets and load the trunks of their rental cars and give each other hugs and tell each other to expect Christmas cards. The rapist sits on a bench by the parking lot, watching everyone leave.
I take the box of novelty awards and sit down beside him. “It’s not that I think you’re a bad person,” I say, “but you kind of ruined everything.”
He stares straight ahead. “I wasn’t supposed to leave the state,” he says. “They’re going to arrest me when I get back.”
Shane Hinton with the furtive wife comforts the rapist Shane Hinton and the story ends with no real resolution but what can you really expect when you gather all those with your name and hope for the best. Perhaps this was the best anyone could hope for – a bunch of tired Shane Hintons, some good, some bad, most middling, who will try to keep in touch but will eventually forget each other but will still be comforted knowing they truly are not alone in this life.
I know this story is meant to convey the absurdity of seeking answers about life in other people, even those who ostensibly could be seen as us, literally those with our names. But the fact remains that Shane Hinton did find out that his wife does contact the other Shane Hintons but she stays with him despite her many Shane Hinton options. And it was a fun story, to be sure. Shane Hinton, the writer, has a minimalist style that marries well with his subdued humor and dry wit.
But the reason I really enjoyed this story stems from my experiences with the Anita Daltons. Yep. There is more than one of me but it may be nice to know I am the wordiest so far. I routinely get e-mails for the other Anitas. This happens for a variety of reasons, and most of the reasons involve being an early adopter of free-mail accounts. Some Anitas give the wrong e-mail addresses. Some Anitas are sought out online and mails are sent to me assuming that there is only one of us out there. One Anita Dalton spaces out and enters my e-mail address when she means her own. I don’t know what hers is but members of her family, a doctor, and dozens of high-end shops Down Under have sent messages to me meant for her over the years. I generally reply when I get messages from family or messages regarding private or timely manners, so that way the real Anita Daltons can correct matters on their end, and that’s how I end up in interesting interactions with those who know the other Anita Daltons.
The Anita Dalton in Australia is my favorite Anita Dalton, because her family is so nice, her shopping tastes seem similar to mine and she likes cats, but there are others who are pretty cool. There’s the Anita Dalton in Anchorage who sells real estate. There’s an Anita Dalton in Wisconsin with kids who seems like a pretty involved and lovely mother. There’s an Anita Dalton in the UK who is really into amateur theater, role-playing games and pantomime. I always like getting messages for her because when I let the senders know that I can’t confirm a rehearsal date or similar, the sender always apologizes politely and then inquires about the weather in Texas. Always. Never fails. Every single time the sender wants to know about the weather here.
I recently get a message intended for an 80-year-old woman in the UK, a wholly different Anita from Anita Dalton the pantomimer. This Anita Dalton had just celebrated her 60th wedding anniversary and had owned a popular pub. It was strangely delightful to think that someone who knew her thought her, at age 71, to be the sort of woman to grab a G-mail address as soon as it was available. I told Mr OTC that when we celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary we will be dead, and we thought it was probably for the best. I corrected the woman sending Diamond Anniversary congratulations as to my identity and she was very happy I did. And she asked about the weather in Texas.
The Anita Dalton in Georgia whose mug shots show she has had a fair number of difficulties in life ensured that I used to get all kinds of borderline upsetting messages but she never annoyed me like Shane Hinton the rapist.
The most messages I receive for an Anita Dalton is for the one in Sedona, AZ. See, she is a psychic and New Age purveyor of several stripes. The bulk of the e-mails I receive for her stem from an article about how she used to be a skeptic but ended up embracing crystal healing and shamanism. Its Google rank varies when you search for “Anita Dalton” but it is high in the results. I’ve been a skeptic most of my life, and this has caused people to think, upon reading that article when searching online for me, that I had an awakening of sorts. Lots of old classmates contacted me thinking this Anita was me, and those don’t really count because they don’t think they are contacting Sedona Anita Dalton as a person separate from me – they think I became Sedona Anita Dalton. Same thing happens when people who dislike my skepticism online search for me after my dismissal of their conspiracy theory angers them and then contact me crowing about how dumb I must feel now that my mind is open to aliens and such. Those also don’t count, because again they think I morphed into Sedona Anita, and I really hope Sedona Anita Dalton does not get any of those messages meant for me sent her way because they are always nasty. The number of messages I received for Sedona Anita Dalton or because people think I am Sedona Anita Dalton have decreased over the years but she was my greatest Anita Dalton crossover.
I’ve never wanted to get us all in the same place before, and even after reading about the gathering of Shane Hintons I remain uninspired to assemble us. I suspect I would be the weird one in the group. I wouldn’t be shunned like a criminal but I also think my inability to act and sing, work a proper job, or maintain an interest in motherhood or spiritual matters would make it hard to maintain conversation. I would also likely be the shortest woman in the room and I really hate that since I can’t wear heels any longer. Yet I feel a strange kinship with these Anita Daltons. I hope they think fondly of me if they ever get messages meant for me, but I also worry that they may think I am some sort of lunatic.
Back to the book. The next story I want to discuss is “Symbiont.” Symbionts are parasitical old men whose heads stick out of a woman’s vagina, rendering her crotch area bulky and making urination and walking difficult. Carol, who has a hypochondriac father and whose sexual relationships are generally unpleasant, especially when it comes to dating Brad, a co-worker, is alarmed when an old man’s head emerges from her vagina, but, after consulting the Internet, decides to let him stay. She learns to go to the bathroom in a way that keeps from drenching him, she worries when he becomes ill and helps cure him rather than have him removed, and the old man proves to be an interesting part of her life, grounding her life, in a way. It’s a visually disturbing story, and is another link between Shane Hinton and Hank Kirton because the description of the old man reminds me of R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural (I discuss Kirton’s use of Crumb-esque imagery in his story “Sweetie-Pie Begonia Babyhead”).
The old man seems to understand people faster than Carol. Brad corners Carol at lunch and bores her with stories about his party:
Carol ate quickly and excused herself, stopping by the bathroom on the way back to her cubicle. She locked the stall door and lifted her dress and looked down at the old man. The old man looked annoyed. “I know,” she whispered. “I shouldn’t have gone out with him, I was lonely. He has nice teeth.”
Later Brad asks her out again, taking her to a crappy happy hour at a chain restaurant and Carol leaves Brad there, unwilling to subject herself to his company. She walks away, caressing the old man’s head, a clear symbol that this old man’s head has removed her from the realm of the sexual, and Carol is more than sanguine with that outcome.
This story is a fascinating look at a woman whose life is consumed by uninteresting sexual encounters and dealing with a father who always thinks he is ill. There is nothing Carol can do to help her father, but when the old man becomes ill, she gets medication and cares for him in a maternal way, even though the doctor warns her that the Symbiont can potentially kill her if she lets it remain inside of her while he is sick. She decides to keep him in there, a decidedly self-sacrificing decision. With the Symbiont, Carol gets to cure her father, avoid meaningless sexual encounters, and become a quasi-mother all in one strange, fell swoop. This is a bizarre story with disturbing imagery, and it manages to include several layers of meaning and character growth.
“Self-Cleaning” echos some of the melancholy in “Symbionts.” In fact, all the stories in this collection feature some sort of finely-wrought melancholy, a look at the sadder side of the human condition. Fear that one’s wife is unfaithful, the worry of being the child of a hypochondriac while having no children of one’s own – “Self-Cleaning” tackles the fear of failing at life, grasping at straws to keep the crushing depression of failure at bay. Shane Hinton sees an infomercial for a tooth whitening system and begins to imagine how buying the system will change his life. His hygiene would improve. He would drink less coffee.
I turned on the TV and found the infomercial on another channel. A more successful career, the man said. A happier life.
Though broke and almost completely maxed out, Shane is talked into buying a two-for-one deal and plans to give the extra kit to his friend Pete, whose teeth are brown from years of smoking. He imagines the great impact this gift will have on Pete and their friendship. When the tooth whitening system doesn’t deliver a better life immediately, Shane becomes obsessed with his teeth, using more and more product, completely closed off from real life as he imagines his life in the future. He loses his job and he ruins his teeth by over-whitening. In this degraded state, Shane still looks down on Pete, with his brown teeth, but at the end, Pete is a stand-up guy and Shane at least has a friend to stand by him if he rises out of his terrible state. If. It’s hard to know if Shane will recover from his tooth-whitening disaster. But if he doesn’t the reader knows all will not be lost for him.
The best story in the collection is “Intersection.” Just before the Fourth of July a drunk driver takes a wrong turn and plows through the front of Shane Hinton’s home, taking out a substantial portion of the house. Shane, his wife and his son are all okay, as is the driver, and the cops come and take the driver away to sober up. Shane is then faced with the bureaucratic nightmare of getting his insurance company to tow the car away and to do something, anything, about the huge hole in his house.
I sat on hold for three hours that afternoon, staring down the hallway toward the garage. It was strange to see sunlight on the floor.
“I’m sorry this is taking so long,” the woman from the insurance company said. “Most people are off for the holiday.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
After a couple more hours she told me there was nothing they could do. “Call back on Monday,” she said. “My manager is out on a camping trip for the long weekend.”
My wife wasn’t happy. “What do we pay them for?” she asked.
I may or may not have nearly had a nervous breakdown over the last year-and-a-half wrangling with our insurance and warranty companies over a problem that has destroyed our ceiling twice and resulted in rain seeping into our house every storm. So I was with Shane’s wife, and the conclusion I reached was that we pay them so we can focus on the annoying insurance details rather than the mess left when the worst happens. We pay them for distraction.
Shane tries to comfort his frightened son, insisting that no more cars will crash into their home. He, his wife and his son all sleep in the master bedroom in the back of the house. The next day Shane buys some extra thick plywood and covers the hole in his house, lettering it with lurid paint to reassure his son that their house is now extra visible and no other cars will come crashing in. After the holiday weekend is over, Shane has to return to work and spends a tiresome amount of time on hold with the insurance company, which tells him that it will take seven to ten business days just to tow the car out of their house.
After he leaves work, Shane tries to get his wife on the phone, but her line just goes straight into voicemail. Stuck in traffic, his world takes on a hue that should be surreal to me but sadly isn’t:
The traffic stretched ahead of me for miles. I turned on the radio but couldn’t concentrate on what they were saying. “Government spending is out of control. What we need are fewer traffic lights and more prisons. This country was built on Coca-Cola and hand grenades, not seat belts and dental floss.”
When Shane finally makes it home, the plywood is splintered and his son and wife are sitting on the porch, being treated for shock by police and paramedics.
I opened the front door. The living room was full of cars. Red, black, green, and white. The metal twisted together. I couldn’t tell minivans from pickup trucks from hatchbacks.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
“They were all headed home after the long weekend,” the cop said. “You know how it is. One takes a wrong turn, and the rest follow. We figure the whole thing was over in less than five minutes.
This time there were fatalities and it takes around two hours to get all the dead and injured out of Shane’s living room. With few options left, Shane’s wife makes dinner – spaghetti – and they eat in the dark, as one of the cars had taken out the electricity pole that fed their house. The family retreats again to the back bedroom, and Shane, unable to sleep, gets up to survey the house.
As I got closer to the wreckage , I heard a low hiss and a faint rattle that I thought might be a cooling engine. I leaned into the spaces where doors and windshields used to be but couldn’t see anything. The sound quickened and I could also hear dripping. Finally I got down on my knees. Underneath the pile, a middle-aged woman in a brown dress with yellow flowers looked up at me. Her lower jaw was missing. When she exhaled, blood bubbled from the hole in her neck.
“They missed one,” I said to the woman.
She nodded anxiously.
I sat down and leaned against the wreckage, took my phone out of my pocket and dialed the insurance company. I knew the dying woman was a liability. The phone rang three times and went to a recording. I hung up.
“This is going to have to wait until morning,” I said to the dying woman. She looked disappointed, but I could see that she understood.
This is where the Konrath/Hinson overlap began for me. I was reminded of Konrath’s character camping out in the lobby of a car repair shop as the staff bring him pieces of his car, one by one, and ask if he wants those parts repaired. He had only gone in for an oil change, but anticipating the clusterfuck he brings a tent and plenty of reading material. This complete inability for the common man to navigate the American landscape of commerce, madness and red tape is what “Intersection” is all about, and this sort of numb remove from the lunacy of modern living permeates other stories in this collection, but none so clearly as this piece. It feels unsettling to find a story like this so funny but there you are. Life sucks, and Hinson portrays that suckage with good humor and an eye for the mundane detail that makes these stories resonate with a realness even as they verge into the absurd, like in “Intersection,” or into creepy magical realism, as in “Symbiont.”
This was an impressive collection, all the more impressive given how short the book is – 112 pages. Despite the book’s brevity, I think this book brings value to the table because these are stories I felt like I wanted to read again. Initially I loathed “Symbiont” because it was just too foul for a neurosis-riddled woman like me. But something drew me back to the story and caused me to read it again and the second time it felt different, less disgusting and more heartening, as familiarity permitted me to see the story rather than the details that flipped my gross-switch. I suspect others will have this reaction, finding a story that becomes different after a second read. Highly recommended.
And if you walk away from this book discussion with nothing else, let it be never, ever to use your real name on a free-mail account.