Archive for July, 2010

A Review of “Adopted Behaviors” by James R. Tomlinson

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Spencer Dew

“That crap he’s readin’ got two dollar words and don’t reflect reality,” says a character in this chapbook, and the author is trying to get at this reality, as, for instance, at the story’s end, there’s a rape scene of sorts, described elliptically–“Interlocking fingers cup the back of her neck, thumbs press inward, hands squeeze. Veins display, blue lines map out and vanish”–and in institutional jargon with a dose of cynical swagger–“CSC (Criminal Sexual Conduct) is added to his file. Congratulations, you are now a registered sex offender.” The tone here is consistent throughout Adopted Behaviors, giving the sense that Tomlinson, who teaches prisoners, is keeping his own shoulders high and any emotional response (especially empathy with these very prisoners) tightly under wraps. The back cover promises that all the pieces inside are “related in some way to the human condition and/or prison experience,” which, when you consider it, already says a great deal about Tomlinson’s point of view. The “or” there points to a divide between the human and that which is other than, less than, human–a roiling, unredeemable mass of violent beings. And to maintain this dichotomy one needs a guard up, a front of aggression and bravado even at the level of language, which becomes a blunt and expressionless tool for bludgeoning a story into the pavement.

Included here are experiments in “flash memoir” revolving around perspective on possibly seminal events–some childhood hunting, an incident of running down a construction worker with a Ford Pinto–told from far away from any feeling on the things. There are also flash fiction pieces with kids setting up a sidewalk stand to sell Merlot in crystal glasses and a man whose Detroit tool and die job is lost to the Indian corporate giant Tata. These are stories about inertia, about lives bowled into the gutter and still rolling. There are outbursts of violence, too, none quite as brutal as the seemingly non-violent crashing of a wedding by a group of wounded women. A disposable camera and a toilet full of shit somehow seems crueler and more shocking than anything with bullets or shanks, but perhaps the credit for this is with the build-up. In one of the longer stories, where a marriage is still holding together despite a serious spat over the non-use of nasal strips, the husband develops a new habit, driving slow past a bus stop for a glimpse of a certain too-young girl. The lust itself, being a matter of passion, more or less, is left largely undescribed, but we are given a sampling of Tomlinson’s prose pugilism on the drive over:

He’s not running late; however, he does want to get to the corner of Samsa and Conner as quickly as possible. He folds down, accordion-style, the faded vinyl top on his mustard-yellow Volkswagen and crouches in just the same. His Picasso-ugly head thumps the rearview mirror. His face turns blue. Bubble wide eyes stretch to the side. Plastic frames torque. Nose and lip lap. The reddish-brown derby down. The mushroom dome blown. He slows down, way down, get calm down, and puts the derby back on. It’s still too large; it bends his ears east and west like radars, or antennas, transmitting his momentary thoughts….

This man, too, works in a prison, swallows his daily poison, and sticks to the set trajectory with no mind toward anything resembling either satisfaction or defeat. The story is called “Jail Bait,” but there’s no baiting, really, no pursuit, no capture, just worms that will ultimately eat us and the hooks that, in the meantime, go through us all. The sense one gets is that in Tomlinson’s world anything more than that is a two dollar word–a fancy fantasy, a make-believe abstraction–with no place in reality and, thus, no role in this hunched over, slightly depressing chapbook.

Official James R. Tomlinson Web Site
Official Motor City Burning Press Web Site