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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Messiah Tortoise
A Review of Messiah Tortoise
by James R. Gapinski

Spencer Dew

How does a failing zoo market itself for survival? Some revenue comes from obtaining a liquor license, though that creates certain problems for the business, too. Exploit the relation to predatory animals and convert some of the property into a paintball course? That brings its own disappointment in these pages:

Every TV commercial for Wild Paintball suggested a vast jungle with animals lurking in the shadows, but it was actually a small dome with cardboard cutout trees and pre-defeated animals. Several birds flopped around at ground-level, unable to fly with thick paint coating their wings. Some lemurs tried to climb the cardboard trees only to slide down the layers and layers of slick paint. Multi-colored penguins waddled around in search of water, finding nothing but puddles of unswimmable paint.

The best money-making scheme is one of our species’ oldest: religion. At Gapinski’s struggling zoo, a tortoise happens to take on wounds reminiscent of those of Christ. Immediately, the gimmick is seized by zoo administrators as a source of financial salvation, never mind the pus leaking from the wounds, or the spread of infection across the creature. Admission fees are raised. A charge is added to touch the animal, another charge to light candles in its proximity. Still, worshippers flock, as they always do, proclaiming not so much faith as the fervent need that underwrites it. Our narrator, who recognizes that “The stigmata looked infected,” and remains “pretty sure the tortoise wasn’t divine,” has a brother in the hospital who needs the intervention. For a miracle, one suspends disbelief, opens one’s wallet, and prays.

The interconnected stories in this chapbook are, at times, funny, but there is a pathos running beneath the gags, and even the most neurotic characters (the worker who, realizing that several of the flamingoes have gone missing, replaces them with lawn decorations from a nearby garden center; the arborist who lobbies for the zoo to get rid of its animals and focus solely on the cultivation and presentation of its trees) demand empathy, resonating the wounded impotence that motivates the crowds to come and proclaim hosannas to a sick tortoise, to insist in the impossible long after that tortoise, overcome not by neglect but by attention to its own deterioration, dies—in so doing moving from a thing of flesh to a thing of imagination, becoming, like those plastic flamingos, so much easier to manage, more comfortable and therefore more comforting.

Official James R. Gapinski Web Site
Official Red Bird Chapbooks Web Site

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