Jack and Mr. Grin by Andersen Prunty

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Jack and Mr. Grin

Author: Andersen Prunty

Type of book: Fiction, bizarro

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Eraserhead Press, bizarro, etc. etc.

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

Comments:When I decided to feature a Bizarro Week here on IROB, I knew I had to discuss a work from Andersen Prunty. The first of Prunty’s books I read was The Overwhelming Urge, which I reviewed here, and I loved it. It was cerebral, gentle weirdness, a collection of short stories that was odd but restrained in the bizarro-ness. More magical realism than full-bore strangeness, all of the short stories in that collection were common scenes with a fresh and at times unsettling eye.

That is also how Jack and Mr. Grin reads. A familiar story with a new, unsettling eye. The plot is simple. A man is on a quest to find his true love before something terrible and violent happens to her. Abducted women in peril plots are a dime a dozen, from romance to thrillers, stacked in the supermarket paperback wire displays. The devil, of course, is in the details and that is where he resides in this book.

Jack Orange loves Gina Black. He spends all day at a job place called the Tent where he shovels dirt into boxes which are then shipped off to strange and unlikely destinations. It’s a foul, filthy job but he does it willingly, knowing it gives him and Gina a better life. One Sunday morning, Jack is distracted on the way back into his house after a quick trip to buy breakfast. He has a ring to propose to Gina, whom he has left in their house, listening to old records. But he is distracted by his neighbor and when he returns with breakfast and the ring, Gina is gone. She has been kidnapped by Mr. Grin and he will torture her to death if Jack does not use his wits to discover where Gina is being held and destroy Mr. Grin. The answer to her location lies in the history of their relationship and the things Gina has considered important, but it still isn’t that easy.

Jack has to navigate a landscape that has been changed by Mr. Grin. People he turns to for help end up with a stinging brand in their skin that either makes them insane or is a symbol of their insanity, becoming homicidal in their attempts to stop Jack from finding Gina. This is a quest novel but it is a bizarro quest novel so it could very easily have become a circus of intensely insane, surrealistic violence as Jack struggles to find Gina. Prunty has a strong hand and controls this story, ramping up the horror and disbelief, yet never becoming so disgusting or unbelievable that the novel reaches a state of near surrealistic parody or gut-wrenching gore (not that there is anything wrong with either, it must be said).

Nothing is random in this novel. Though one of the hallmarks of bizarro is the surrealistic plot line, at times using cloying details that seem important but later mean nothing in the face of absurdist plots, Prunty does not take that route. His plots are held together tightly, each plot device, each character we meet, every single event playing a role in the way the novel unfolds. In that way he is definitely more restrained than some of his bizarro brethren. In many ways, this book was more in the vein of dark horror. But there were enough otherworldly elements, strange, surreal descriptions, that make this book a good crossover for anyone who wants to try bizarro without descending too quickly into a complete mind bend.

All in all, this is a tight, well-told horror/bizarro tale. Every detail matters in the game Mr. Grin forces Jack to play. Anyone who has either tried to write a mystery/thriller/horror novel will know how hard this is to do, and more important, anyone who has read a novel that cannot pull it off knows how marvelous it is when a writer gets it right. Since I don’t want to spoil the plot, I can’t go into depth about all the ways that Prunty makes every word matter, but I can say that Prunty doesn’t make the mistake of making words count in a calculated, stiff manner. He is far more deft than that. Casual conversations help with characterization but it is subtle – not a hammer in our foreheads announcing, “Hey, character development, pay attention!” As Jack careens from one bad scene to the next, the plot’s pace never seems overwhelming or rushed.

However tight and well-paced this novel is, I think the real reason to read it is to wallow in Prunty’s prose and ideas. He handles some downright creepy scenes that resonated with me weeks after reading this book. For example, the first time Jack hears Mr. Grin on the phone, the voice he hears causes him to immediately know what the man looks like.

“Who are you?”

“I think you know who I am.”

Already he had a picture of this guy in his head. He was like a more bloated version of his high school history teacher. The teacher would come in and lecture for an hour about holocausts and smile the entire time. Only his history teacher had been very thin. Just from a couple of sentences, Jack pictures this guy as a plump man. He didn’t know why. He was there, on the other end of the line, his plump red cheeks all pulled back, those gleaming white teeth, almost perfect enough to be dentures, gleaming out from all that rosiness.

Later in the same conversation:

Already his head raced with ideas of trying to track the man by this phone call. Of trying to pick up some sound from the other end that would allow him to place it. The sound of kids playing in a playground, or a siren from a fire engine or a train. Anything. But he didn’t hear anything except the man’s somewhat labored breathing and, perhaps, the sound of his cheeks pulling back from his gums in that hideous grin.

I initially thought I saw so much meaning in these passages because I do this all the time – build a mental image of what a person looks like on the basis of their voice. I think everyone does that. But this passage means so much more, really. It shows that Jack is sharp, even in the face of shock. He knows to sift for clues. He knows to listen closely. But this passage most importantly shows very early on that we, the reader, can trust Jack’s instincts. On the basis of a voice, he remembers a creepy, grinning man who likely had a strong sadistic streak in him. He knows, from the very beginning, before Mr. Grin makes a single threat, exactly what sort of man he is dealing with.

I reviewed recently a book by Supervert, wherein he argued that there was a noise that could, despite philosophical assertions stating otherwise, inspire disgust. This book is full of examples of how, in the absence of any other stimulus, Jack heard noises that if heard by the reader would have been disgusting. Dreadful sloshing, slurping noises he hears on the phone can mean very disgusting, degrading things are happening to Gina. Having read Supervert, it put those noises into a whole new… horrible perspective for me. It’s nice when the odd writers I love intersect like this.

Prunty gives us more than disgust, as there is raw horror in this book. If I had any quarrel with this book, it was with the ending. It seemed too neat, in a way, but I also guess at the same time that given the otherworldly elements in this book, the sort of slipstream combination at the end, that the ending is not out of place. I guess there was enough realism for me to want the gritty horror that Prunty set up to endure throughout the book.

I think this is a fabulous book, very much worth a read. It also skirts one of the biggest complaints readers have shared with me about bizarro – that the books are too expensive for what are often no more than a 100 page novella. I’m not one to complain about the cost of books (most of the time), but at 195 pages, this is an actual novel and you will enjoy turning every one of the pages.

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