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Bad Monkey, a 153-page collection of realist fiction, is Curtis Smith’s sixth book. From the outset, it’s evident that the author is skilled and experienced, because “The Girl in the Halo,” a story about a missing person, is rich in specific detail, description, and narrative know-how. Interestingly, while the piece sets the somber tenor of the compilation, it’s also in second person. Is it an effective lead-in? Yes and no. Though it has many positive qualities, as mentioned above, if you’ve read Dan Chaon’s Among the Missing, it will seem familiar.
Nonetheless, “The Girl in the Halo” does indeed hint at what’s to come for the characters in other stories—divorce, injury, and yes, death. Similar to many, if not most, collections, Bad Monkey has a few stories that don’t quite measure up to their peers—“In the Jukebox Light,” “Neighbors,” “Party Song”—but they’re still enjoyable in certain respects. In other words, there are no true clunkers here. I think the finest stories are brief yet haunting. “Riverside,” for instance, concerns a woman, who works at a funeral home, preparing a drowned man for showing. What she’s compelled to do as a result of the tragedy is both unexpected and somehow fitting, the end recalling the close of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Smith’s “Caravan” is another short stunner, focusing on a girl named Angela, whose parents are members of a cult that is planning to set up headquarters elsewhere, which requires them to move away. “Fever” works well too: an off duty nurse tends to her feverish son during an ice storm that could prevent them from seeking further care, should the need arise. “The thermometer chirped...101.5...102.2...103.1...” (106), a foreboding line, heightens the tension and nearly spells out the seemingly inevitable course of action.
Description doesn’t always work in Smith’s favor, however, as an opening line such as “Snow covered the football field, a white blanket for the sideline markers and long pine benches” (“A Different War,” 135) provides a visual, but doesn’t hook my interest. The other pieces entertain—each is armed with an intriguing premise and high stakes for those involved—but deliver only marginal satisfaction. Bad Monkey ends on a high note, though, with the charming title story about an ill-mannered monkey named Tolstoy that repeatedly disobeys its trainer.
The bottom line? This collection is good overall, but like many of its ilk, has stories that range from average to great.
Official Curtis Smith Web Site
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