Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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To embody the fairytale, to crawl into that space, sticky with candy and blood, curl up fetus-like and light up a mentholated smoke... Or, to phrase it another way, to birth the fairytale into our own world, to scrape a gaff against its side and drag the whole thing out, wet and mewling, a weird marriage of worlds... This is what Hicks does, or both of these, a kind of monstrous stitching, back and forth.
Thus we get some good old boys debating theology on an alligator hunt, then later debating theology with alligator-men, morphed by exposure to the urban: “The red and yellow lights of liquor stores, fast food restaurants, and pawn shops fell across the alligators and saturated their skins, soaking into them. They curled up in their ropes, their noses blunted. They were starting to become men.” Is God an artist? A distiller? An auto-body restorer? Might not God be that which makes things rust and change? Transformation, so central to fairytales, plays out in ways traditionally dark, but new: a car wash, a Chinese buffet.
The bones of the stories can be summarized, but not their ornery beastliness: chickens build a meth lab, a juggler robs banks. A talented young Southern girls gets cursed with a career in a beauty salon, though it’s more complicated than that, so she sets out to find the witch who gave her the sick gift of turning hair to gold. When the witch’s pack of Dobermans runs to her, “begging for love. She pet them and left golden palm prints across their fur.” When a baby who swallows watermelon seeds begins to leak watermelon juice into his diaper, his grandfather digs a hole, “drops the boy inside, mashes him down with a hairy foot until only the vines show. Takes a slow piss on the mound and hums, grow, little baby Dino, grow.”
The world of fairytales, after all, has its own logic, largely incomprehensible. The wisest response is a kind of hard-earned ignorance, a calloused caution: “The boys all nodded solemn, knowing it wasn’t good, but not what it meant all the way.” So, too, of the real world, or a particular real world to which Hicks, in his slant way, pays homage. This is a world where at one diner table can sit “the pea boss, the bean boss, and the okra boss,” monumental and ancient men, “great big sons of bitches . . . their eyes buried in deep creases under their brows . . . speaking a language of earth and stones, blind worms burrowing, water swelling the ground. They talked of crops, the slow heartbeats eating the earth and rising until dirty hands gathered them up. They cursed and chuckled to each other.” In his Acknowledgments Hicks writes that he wants to “thank the pine woods, vine-swallowed cemeteries, narrow gravel roads, fallen down houses, cold creek beds, barbed-wire fences, and blood red clay of southwest Arkansas.” These flavors come through in tales of flea boys or weeping exorcists/plumbers.
But there is a blown-open imagination, too, sugared-up and running wild, shirtless and hoarse from screaming. That’s what accounts for such inspired scenes as this debate between an electrician and a young stargazer, the two shouting back and forth on the value of natural versus man-made wonders of light:
...Virgo. Traffic lights. Lyra. Mood lighting. Orion. Alarm clocks. Taurus. Heating lamps.
“The moon,” she shouted, throwing up her arm and pointing at it.
The electrician could feel its weight over his head. It hung, white and thick as a bowl of frozen milk. He had been afraid she would use it against him.
He collected himself. “Movie screens.”