about the author

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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Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories
A Review of Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories
by Chavisa Woods

Spencer Dew

Some say apparitions are imprints of violence, a kind of memory of place projecting itself to human senses in the form of late night wailing or the specter of a weeping woman walking along a dark road. Some of the ghosts in Woods’s new book fit this theory—in one story, invisible children push cars off the highway at the spot where they died in a fiery bus crash—but the book’s deeper concern is an application of that theory to the country as a whole, to explore the ways America is haunted by the violence it has wrought and continues to wreak.

These are weird tales, well-told, deliciously funny, but beyond the acid trip descriptions of oral sex or the itemization, in the title story, of ways to freak out the locals, there’s a sobering recognition of how freaked out the locals already are, in so many ways. We hear from communities that sobbed at the election of Bill Clinton because they viewed this as a defeat in a “real religious war” and we hear of soldiers under orders to shoot their comrades in the ankles should they freeze up during a raid on a home in Iraq, thus saving them from a worse injury by making sure they drop to the ground. We sit with meth-heads and exorcists, statutory rapists and children turned to crime by desperation or dumb luck, stripping copper or turning tricks. We meet self-segregated remnants of the faithful, some addicted to the pornography of prophecy and condemnation, others tinkering with various alternatives to the material monotony of this world, from Mensa cults to neo-pagans. We get fashion advice from scabbed-up cutters and watch as pious families burn toys that they suspect serve as demonic gateways. Woods allows us to stare unflinchingly at an America of (paranoiac) magical thinking and (low-budget) pharmacological escapism, a world of Jack and Rexella Van Impe on the television and a whipped cream canister at the lips. The people here are desperate for a reality other than the one they have been given.

At the climax of the title story, hilarity quickly turns to anguish: to put on corpse paint here is explicitly linked with real prophecy, the Hebrew sort, those pariah performance artists who cried out to remind us how dead society already was. Another story offers a different take on the legacy of the Holy Land: a young trans artists develops a kind of infection on his face: “a flesh-and-blood animated replicate of a section of the Gaza Strip.” It’s absurd, of course, this miniature wall, with its miniature gunfire and bombs, its asymmetrical warfare, its various tiny dead falling off the face of this man, who collects the bodies in a chambered plastic box. He goes public with his plight, which is a small-scale personalization of a much larger plight, appearing on Oprah and meeting, ultimately, with the President of the United States, to whom he gives a token, a reminder, a miniscule corpse, “just a kid who fell out of my head a few days ago. I don’t know her name.”

What most haunts the protagonists assembled in these excellent stories is a sense of guilt, the dark side effect of American exceptionalism, a guilt over the recognition that the world is not as promised in the simplistic triumphalism of our shared civic faith and then more guilt, both over the ways the world has been and is being made more violent, more unjust, by American intervention and a final layer of guilt over the ways we constantly distract ourselves from these facts, ignoring the real wars in favor of proxy wars of our own (of us-versus-them in religion and fashion and regions and race)—guilt over what our goth narrator here calls a “dead consciousness of this country,” a consciousness that perhaps is only sleeping, a consciousness that, in these stories, Woods prods and nudges, tickles and righteously irritates.

Official Seven Stories Press Web Site

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