Discouraging at Best by John Edward Lawson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Discouraging at Best

Author: John Edward Lawson

Type of Book: Short story collection, fiction, bizarro (borderline)

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:While not as overly odd as some bizarro out there, this is definitely not a mainstream book. I have read Lawson before and some of his other works were definitely odd, so he gets reviewed here, even if this particular content is not that outre.

Availability: Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press in 2007, you can get a copy here (actually, no link on this one – Amazon’s direct link to this book is borked. So screw that – go straight to the source on this one.)

Comments: Okay, I’ll admit that a less than savory youth may have caused me to have certain memory problems. I’m that person who, when tired enough, will forget my own name as well as all sorts of important nouns crucial for effective communication. Mr. Oddbooks has enough experience that when I become bleary and say, “Bring me the thing. The thing… It’s in a drawer with some other things, maybe… In that place were we shower…” he knows to find my hairbrush. So while I like to think that this tendency does not dog me in my reading habits, the fact is that it probably does. However, when it does happen, I am generally able to say it was likely that the reading material was not memorable. And I am usually right. However, it happened with Lawson’s Discouraging at Best and this time I have to say that aside from one story, it was probably me.

It was unsettling to pick up the book and not remember much aside from the fact that there was an anthropological dig at George W. Bush. I read Sick: An Anthology of Illness years ago, a book Lawson edited, and vividly recall it that it was very good – it was one of the first bizarro books I ever read, though at the time I wasn’t aware of bizarro as a genre and lumped mentally in with extreme horror. I think I was expecting to be as enthralled with Discouraging at Best. I wasn’t but that does not mean that Lawson missed the mark. You can’t fall in love with every book. And a flip through it jogged my memory. When a book is utterly unmemorable, a flip doesn’t help. In this case, the flip reminded me how hilarious the story about the Nobel Laureate was. It reminded me how deeply sad the first story in the collection was, though peppered with dark humor. It bothers me that I didn’t remember it clearly, though that does not mean that this is a bad collection. It just means it likely will not be one of my favorite bizarro books.

Lawson, while an author I consider bizarro, is also an author whose sense of absurdity comes from the very real. For those who do not find the more outrageous bizarro authors who dwell in the fantastic to their liking, Lawson may be more accessible. While some of his prose comes close to being fantastic, this story collection tends towards lampoon, a desire to show the truly insane in our life, the craziness that is right in front of us. Much of this book is biting satire, and once I re-engaged with the book, good satire at that.

There are five short stories in this book. The theme of families and how they are too often broken messes is a major theme, but Lawson also wields a heavy political stick in these stories.

The first story, “Whipped on the Face With a Length of Thorn Bush: Yes, Directly on the Face” tells the tale of the Havenots, a poverty-stricken family whose patriarch is attempting to sell the services of his son. The service, as the title suggests, is beating people for a fee. Malcolm, the son, is quite unwell mentally, and Lawson presents Malcolm’s reactions and troubles in a way that is funny but also deeply unfunny. This story, told from the various perspectives of members of the Havenot family, reveal fear, anger and chaos. Published in 2007, it is not hard to miss the overt political commentary of a story wherein people are threatened by a thorny Bush. The ending is sad, horribly sad, and all the sadder because it is all too real. At times, the story threatened to slip into parody, especially via the use of the accented speech assigned to the characters, but overall, it was a strong story.

The second story, “A Serenade to Beauty Everlasting,” is of a Nobel Laureate, a despicable man who receives the ultimate honor for his writing. However, he is a complete assface. His wife and daughter loathe him. He is very much a man willing to cut off his nose to spite his face and his deeply negative internal dialogue spills over into his acceptance speech, made all the more bizarre by his grotesque appearance after a series of accidents, fights and exhibitions of sheer idiocy on the way to the party being held in his honor. Though I was not entirely a fan of the accented speech used in “Thorny Bush,” Lawson is clearly a writer who can adapt his style well to fit a number of styles of speech. Willard, the Nobel Laureate, is such a disaster he literally foams at the mouth, antagonizing his not-so-long-suffering wife and daughter until you wish someone would just hit him on the head until he is comatose. But rather, one feels that when his daughter begins to laugh in his self-important face, that is possibly the best punishment for him. As he gives his speech, the vile ideas in his mind spill over into his speech and so adoring and facile is his audience, they accept his half-baked explanation. Though this served for me as an excellent character sketch, the disintegration of this particular family as well as the look into literary circles were excellent. This was my favorite story in the collection.

The third story is the one that was least memorable to me. I suspect I would need to reread it completely word for word a second time to be able to comment on it intelligently. So take that for what you will – either it was the weakest story in the bunch or it was the one that my admittedly weak memory just couldn’t bank on.

The fourth story is probably the funniest. “Maybe It’s Racist…” follows a modern phrenologist as she manages to make her way into the inner sanctum of the White House. She measures the skulls of the First Family and President and comes to some startling conclusions. Well, not so startling when you take into account that the President being parodied is Bush. If you were a Bush Republican, this story will piss you off unless you have an excellent sense of humor. The First Family is a degenerate, crude group and you will likely know the punchline to this story a few paragraphs in, but that makes it no less amusing in my book.

The final story ties the previous four stories together relatively neatly.

Overall, these were provocative stories, disturbing and funny. They were not as deeply memorable as I prefer but again, sometimes a book’s entertainment value can be fleeting. Not every book is going to be To Kill a Mockingbird (and some of you may say, “From your keyboard to God’s ears!”). It was entertaining as I read it, amusing and horrible at the same time, and there are times I don’t ask for more from a book. This is one of those times. Also, from the pictures I have seen of him online, Lawson appears to be some breed of giant and as a very short person, I feel we should all encourage the very tall among us.

And with this disjointed recommendation, I am going to take a nap and hope my memory is better when I wake up because I have no idea where my hairbrush is.