Book: Mother Puncher
Author: Gina Ranalli
Type of Book: Bizarro, novella
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s published by Afterbirth Books, which is often a good sign post for oddness.
Availability: Published by Afterbirth Books in 2008, you can get a copy here:
Comments: It’s fitting that I am concluding Bizarro Week with a review for Gina Ranalli’s Mother Puncher. I reviewed one of her books earlier this year and did not enjoy it that much. Panning Suicide Girls in the Afterlife felt bad. I felt the same way panning it the way I did when I panned Wrath James White because there are authors out there for whom the gestalt of the book does not work in some way or another but you like the way the author writes, you sense that they have something about them that makes them special, even if that book did not show the fullness of talent you sense is there.
This book confirmed my initial sense that Gina Ranalli is a very good writer. Overall, this book is more gently bizarro than some of the other outrageous, absurd and surrealist offerings out there, but the dystopia Ranalli creates is certainly not fodder for a mainstream novel, and this novella makes me invoke one of my backhanded compliments: I wish there was more. The plot got a little rushed in one of the conflicts and frankly, Ranalli’s plot and characterization were absorbing to the point that I was disappointed when the book ended. However, whether or not brevity is a hallmark of bizarro literature, it is a fact that most bizarro is novella-length so I need to get over wanting some of these books to be longer or more developed.
Mother Puncher tells the story of Ed Means, a former boxer who has become a Mother Puncher. That is, the government wants people to stop having kids, so if you go ahead and reproduce, a Mother Puncher comes and punches you in the face. Ideally, the mother and father are supposed to take a shot to the eye, but generally it’s just the mothers who get hit as their menfolk make themselves scarce immediately after the birth. Ed doesn’t like this, but there’s not much he can do about it. He just tries to do his job to the best of his ability despite hate groups, a deranged fan club president who coerces him into seeking side work that he doesn’t want, and a greedy, borderline hybristophilic wife who is seldom on his side.
Like I said above, this is gentler bizarro than many of the books I discuss on this site. The violence in this piece is subtler and more implied (you know, aside from women getting punched full in the face after giving birth), and things make sense. There is no fantasy world here, as the real world makes just about enough sense that one could imagine a law enforcing punches to the face if one insists upon breeding and a large, religious backlash that ends up in violent riots. The dystopia in this book is a mild dystopia, and Ed makes perfect sense to me. The plot does not rely on outrageous fortune to proceed and while I can see how this book would be considered “normal” fiction in some respects, I honestly don’t know if I can think of another publisher that would take on this book.
Ed was an excellent character, fully realized even within the limitations of a novella. Even more impressive were how vivid the minor characters in this book were. A pissy teenager who rats out her mother giving birth to her child in an abandoned house in an attempt to circumvent her punch – that scene painted the petulant teen who acted like a snot until shit got real and her self-absorbed, self-righteous mother perfectly. Drizzle, the underhanded, scuzzy president of Ed’s fan club and his weasel attitude. Ashley, Ed’s chain smoking, lethargic yet greedy wife. The only character I wish I knew more about was Tea, a woman who begins as Ed’s antagonist but eventually becomes his ally, willing to remain by his side even in great peril. She was interesting but I didn’t clue in to her as well, and this is a piddling criticism. In a novel with so many well-formed characters, even those with tiny roles in the novel, perhaps having a character who makes you wonder what she was really all about is a good thing.
Ranalli lets us into Ed’s mind frequently but she is a writer who, in this novel, achieved the dream of really showing and not telling, and one of the ways she did it was via her wonderful characterization. We really get to know Ed via his interactions with other characters. Ranalli contrasts him with weak men who hide to keep from taking their punches. We see his reluctance to take on side work but deciding to do it because the other man who punches mothers had a tendency to go to far, to do permanent damage, and while Ed does his job and feels he is doing a great service to his country, he does not want to hurt anyone permanently. He just wants to live in his secure gated community, have a cold beer now and then, eat a decent meal and do his job.
But Ed’s a good man. He doesn’t shut out the part of himself that feels morally conflicted just because he senses his beliefs are correct. After punching one repeat offender, a woman who takes her punches with good humor because they matter so little to her in the grand scheme of having a large family, Ed settles into a comfortable moral gray area.
Watching them together cheered Ed up somehow, but he couldn’t really say why. He still thought having babies in the current world was sinful but there was something about Mrs. English and her determination to keep doing it for no other reason than that she loved kids. And it was obvious she was a kind and caring mother. Hell, she was a kind and caring woman.
Go figure, thought Ed.
One of the reasons I am discussing the characterization so much is because in Suicide Girls in the Afterlife, I liked the characters but I didn’t buy them. They seemed unlikely at times, and that is not the case here. Motivations make sense. Ed’s emotional reactions make sense. His antagonists make sense. Ranalli’s plot is also very tight, with no loose ends.
The crisp, almost no-nonsense writing style that I found so captivating in her earlier work seemed especially well-suited for this particular tale. I am a person for whom ornate writing can grow very tiresome. The capacity to tell a story that is both straightforward yet engrossing seems simple enough but enough writers do it poorly that when it is done correctly, it is amazing.
Though this novel is not as outrageously baroque and demented as a lot of bizarro, I still think bizarro lovers will enjoy this book. But people who like a character-driven novel written precisely and with an eye to a tight plot will also like it. Like Andersen Prunty’s works, this book could be a gentle introduction into the wild world of bizarro and would be a great book for anyone new to the genre. While at times violent, it is restrained violence and in Ranalli’s hand, what could have been an incredibly misogynistic premise instead seems like an inevitable step in ZPG. I am really glad I read this book. Though the first book of Ranalli’s I read was not to my tastes, there were enough clues there about Ranalli’s style that I hoped I would like one of her other books. One of her more recent books, House of Fallen Trees, is now at the top of my wishlist and I very much look forward to reading it.
So it feels good ending Bizarro Week this way. It just worked out that the five books I had to discuss were all books I really enjoyed, but it always feels much better for me to love a book than hate it. I hope some of my readers who haven’t tried bizarro yet give one of these books a look.