David Herrle reviews Screwball Comedy/Stories Going Steady by boice-Terrel Allen
published by Rattlecat Press
"When was I going to stop living my life like it was some screwball comedy without consequences?"
Buy Screwball Comedy/Stories Going Steady, and you'll get two books for the (average) price of one. When you finish Screwball Comedy, flip the book upside down and turn it over, and you're ready to read Stories Going Steady; and book-cover fans will dig the respective designs (shown in reduced image above). boice-Terrel Allen is a fashionable slickster who seems to compose his physical image almost as much as his fiction, and the book covers, though collaboratively wrought, extend the author's collective style splendidly. "You have to visually represent your entire book in a nanosecond," says boice. Indeed. Fruit Loops catch more eyes than Grape Nuts. But judging a book by its cover is sweetened and saved when the text between lives up to the hook. Heck, any author who uses the word "nonplussed" deserves applause!
I'm guessing that boice's upbringing by three women helped instill in him an appreciation and understanding of female subjects, which enabled him to present the protagonist of Screwball Comedy, Rayla Sunday, so enthusiastically and accurately. I've repeatedly denied those who claim that "a man can't write a woman and a woman can't write a man." Gender exposure is much more open than the Napoleonic era, so Jane Austen-type stock figures of the opposite sex aren't as common or accepted. (Granted, Political Correctness Neo-Puritans tend to insist on divisive, stereotyped portrayals.) Though I haven't read it, I hear that Memoirs Of A Geisha, written by Arthur Golden, is a convincing female narrative. Female subjects fascinate me, not only because I tend to choose them in my own fiction writing but for their strong and evaporative/nebulous and life-giving waterlikeness as opposed to generally geometrical, boring males. boice's smooth groove caught me early in the book. I congratulate him on the Rayla creation - and her name. Female names are crucial for me. Male names? Who cares.
Screwball Comedy follows Rayla Sunday's professional and personal exploits from New York City to Pittsburgh - mainly her romantic "toadkissing" (as the opening chapter is titled). Above all, it seems, she longs to achieve the ultimate photographer gig. Up-and-down exploits change and reshape Rayla by book's end, though her mother reduces courtship to two questions: "Does he work full-time? Does he hit you?" boice presents Rayla with very serious matters, including a boyfriend with HIV, but an unobtrusive humor remains steady throughout her story, thanks to boice's knack for catchy narrative, language choice, and enriching details and allusions. An example of Rayla's thought-speech (that often is first-person speaking of herself in third-person):
I gave Gwen, my boss at the boutique, a one day notice. She was pissed, but I didn't care. I hated her more than first-day cramps.
Words of wisdom:
It's true, life isn't fair. Which probably explains why condoms come in different sizes.
In a moment of privacy:
What happens in Rayla's vagina stays in Rayla's vagina.
And when she can't break up with her boyfriend, Mark, because his mother dies:
Has anyone written Death Etiquette For Dummies yet?
Despite my boredom with race-specificity and victimology, I think I can discern between cliched baiting and genuine, humorous commentary. Chapter two, "Project Blackface," opens with razor-sharp, linguistically deft, satirical Raylaness:
I WAS THE ONLY NIGGER IN THE ROOM. That's how I felt at work. Like I was holding a watermelon in one hand and a tub of chicken in the other with my hair piled up into a mile-high configuration of rainbow-colored dyes with falls and bangs and curls all colliding into each other. Trailed by seven kids, each creatively named after their seven different fathers.
boice delivers pop-culture references, especially to 30-somethings. A boyfriend's ex-girlfriend wears "more blush than Jon Bonet"; C+C Music Factory, thw wonderfully crappy "Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?," "The View," etc.
1990s aside, Rayla wonders, "Should 1986 really be your muse?" There's definitely a lean toward the late 1970s and the entire 1980s: Mork's extraterrestrial curse, "Shazbot," is actually uttered (so is "Shazam," but that's from an even earlier era); the films Silkwood and Norma Rae are cited for potential protest during a job firing, "Falcon Crest," True Confessions, Chariots of Fire, Pretty In Pink, "Dynasty" (highlighting actress Diahann Carroll, Liz Taylor's White Diamonds fragrance, "Married With Children," and much more. The book bursts with 1980s-centric lines: "If I were MacGyver, I might have fashioned a dirty bomb out of the hand soap lotion and a roll of toilet paper" (the use of "dirty bomb" mixes in current-day buzzword), "Considering Dana hadn't been on a date since 'Charles In Charge' went off the air," "None of that jazz you'd hear on 'Matlock' when there's a nightclub murder." There's even more-than-anecdotal mention of K-Y Jelly - whiiiich...began being available over the counter in 1980! (Insert applause for clever 1980s pertinence here.)
Dialogue for both Screwball and Stories is not presented in quotation marks, so readers must acclimate to the camouflage. (Fret not: no Faulknerian or Joycean total submergence. At least the speakers' lines break.) This format, however, symbolically integrates every word, narration and speech. What I look for in first-person narratives is thought meandering, and boice isn't shy about letting Rayla think our eyes off.
Some readers may raise eyebrows at certain passages that seem to be a man's preoccupation with genitalia being inserted (ahem) into Rayla's concerns. When she finally allows her boyfriend Mark to go graduate from heavy petting, she's disappointed in the size of his "stuff." She later fantasizes about having sex with Mark's father and wonders if his stuff is a better bargain. (The clip above about life's unfairness being exemplified by different condom sizes fits - ahem - into this "size matters" mentality.) By the time Rayla hooks up with Paul and they get down, she gets what she's looking for: "[H]ow can I delicately put this, my gag reflex started acting up."
I refute the "Oh paleez" readers by insisting that many women do have such tastes and communicate them more bluntly than lechers in men's locker rooms. Also, I take it as an "Other" acknowledgement that in turn bolsters her feminine sexuality, makes it not only formidable rivalry (with its modern, aggressive, gender-inclusive phallicity) but also a more traditional contrast when the pants are down. Rayla is a post-1990s career woman with a soft spot for reasonable courting games. Early in the book, when the co-owner of Caraway Studios (a typical alpha-male button-pusher: wealth, buying power, high position) hits on her, Rayla chooses to be wooed despite her "feminist" inclinations - or, at least, surface loyalties. I found how she describes the decision to be indicative of the Politically Correct stacked-deck of agendized "feminism":
...I made a decision that would set feminism back twenty years, insult every fiber of Gloria Steinem's honorable being, and align myself with every woman in the Hall of Shame.
While this line is cute and Rayla-like, my mind shoots to the poseurship of much so-called feminism, personality-cult pressure (ala Steinem), and the inflexibility for women who really may enjoy appealing to men, falling for men, and pulling a Bogie and Bacall once in a while. A political guilt replaces perceived patriarchal or religious guilt
Later, however, Rayla exposes her basic appreciation for some of the "old" ways and her individualism while she's waiting for a man (Paul?) to call:
I don't need anyone to tell me what century we're living in. And I'm well aware who Gloria Steinem is. And I know I don't have to wear a bra if I don't want to. But for heaven's sake, if I meet a guy and we exchange phone numbers, why in the hell can't he call first?
Though Rayla is concerned with her professional life throughout the book, from opportunity to falling flat on her face and moving back in with mom, her relationship with Paul tests her actual dedication and integrity. Rayla has few illusions about her ambivalence in relationships. "I was the three-month queen," she says. And she admits, "I'm thoroughly addicted to the newness of meeting men." Well, newness never lasts: that's what makes it newness. Complication and reality demand complicated and realistic - mature - lovers. Rayla knows this: "When was I going to stop living my life like it was some screwball comedy without consequences?" Love necessitates consequences. Careers, though inconvenient and painful if lost, are fundamental interchangeable and adaptable on a less complex and valuable level. And like many screwball comedies, Rayla must surrender to the possibility of being smitten and determined to survive in a romance with strings attached: shrews are tamed; playboys are claimed. When love hits and couples are honest, most or all of that politicized bullshit fizzles like a dud bomb, thankfully.
Love's seriousness is compounded by Paul's HIV and his decreasing T-cells. Rayla's careerism conflicts with her responsibility for her lover, so a personal modification is needed before she can properly deal with Paul. As David Byrne says in "Angels," "I can barely touch my own self, how can I touch someone else?" Near the end of the book (which is by no means conclusive), Paul presents Rayla with her own immaturity and squandered chance: "Rayla, wake up...Welcome to my life. All of it. Not just the romance and the laughs and fun times, but all of it."
I admire your ambition and your passion and I know in my heart that you're going to be the brightest star ever...but maybe i knew all along your big dreams would be my competition...Maybe when you grow up and if I'm still around...we can be together.
Does Rayla ever get the photography gig she longs for? Has Paul moved on and left Rayla as a hopeless case? I know folks hate the following line, but...read the book!
Stories Going Steady
Flip the book over and you've a short-story collection. "A Posthumous Introduction" is about a brilliant, lone-wolf author named Able Morrison who insists that "money may put you in a bigger house, but influence puts you in our consciousness," therefore he aspires to be "a great writer" with drill power instead of "a good writer who [sells] tons of books but [inspires] no one." But Able has a compulsion to stalk young girls. Eventually imprisoned, he tells the narrator, "I can control what I make up; I don't have any control over reality." He's unable. His manuscript, Capable Hands, "a slush pile survivor," is reprinted after his death (heart attack at age 31) and impresses the narrator to not only claim that "there wasn't a wrong note in the book," but to memorialize a flawed genius in an introduction to the posthumous edition of his masterpiece.
"The Appleseed Girl" begins thus:
When I found out that appleseeds were poisonous and had arsenic in them, I knew my brother wouldn't hurt me anymore.
How's that for a hook? The story centers on a young girl named Jaqueline, who is known as "Fat Jaq" by her teasing brother, Charles. By learning murder cover-up tips from "Murder She Wrote" and "Columbo," Jaqueline plots the demise of her cruel sibling: If she puts appleseeds in Charles' portion of chili, there will be no evidence of foul play. The seeds will blend in. "Chili was made for murder. Thick and dark." Jaqueline's plan fails when Charles eats dinner at his girlfriend's house on chili night. In desperation to get the killing over with, she grinds appleseeds into the household milk, since Charles digs milk before bed. But when her brother confesses a regret that they've grown apart and suggests hanging out more often, what will Jaqueline do before he guzzles the deadly concoction? Cute and clever story.
"Interlude: The Colin Powell Ends Racism Project" satirizes the apparent party-line kowtowing of the former Secretary of State, the silly side of sweeping racial reform movements, and interviews with political figures. The opening paragraph describing "the last day of racism" is quite humorous: Powell oversees ridiculous racism eradication measures such as nationwide Confederate flag conflagrations, the tie-dyeing of Klan outfits, and the deep-sixing of Affirmative Action. Powell goes on to advocate "laser eye surgery that prevents people from gawking at interracial couples," liquidation of UPN Network affiliates, and lifetime prison sentences for those "found guilty for the crime of racism."
A "fine journalistic background" doesn't buy Powell's attention, white guilt does! The narrator/interviewer: "After months of investigating his background for my senior thesis, I coincidentally discovered that my ancestors owned his ancestors during the time of slavery. Eureka! I had my foot in the door!"
Though I had some reservations about second-hand conclusions (see my spiel and boice's thoughtful, worthy answer in our May edition interview), this is a snappy satire piece.
boice presents a variety of fresh (as the vulgar say - oops, I just said it) short fiction in Stories Going Steady. There's even a spontaneous combustion finale to one story: "He combusted in seconds, leaving no time for even a drop and roll." I liked some more than others, of course. "Interlude: My Part-Time Cult" is well-written and silly - and mentions hallowed Top Ramen Noodles. "The Murder Ballad Of My Father aka The Pathetic Biographer" failed to move me in the way I think it was intended - but it moved me. (A hazy gay situation just didn't work though.) I wonder if boice described himself through a female character's eyes in "A Man Of A Certain Age" (which ran slightly long) : "He's got a sexy shaved head thing going on and he doesn't dress like the other teachers." "Counting Men" is a brash and intimidating focus on a porno gal who specializes in gangbangs. For $2,000 she endures 50 men: She just counts them down "like they were sheep." Shazbot!
Some favorite clips and passages from the collection:
At fifty-seven, my father was the type of man who people always remarked how good he looked for his age. He made no bones about my avoiding the gym and any other physical exertion. You look like shit, he'd tell me without a hint of levity. and I'd tease him about his lace hobby and he'd give me that familiar hard gaze that carefully and silently explained: some things are never fodder for laughs. - "The Murder Ballad Of My Father"
Where's my buttered popcorn? I ask him. But all he has to offer is a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. They taste like he left the bag open. They're too crunchy but I don't care since I'm hungry. - "Counting Men"
(We've all been there!)
I suppose I don't have anyone to blame for my life. Not really. Maybe if I'd extend myself a little. Try to make friends. Just a warm body to play checkers with.
Who would've thought that non-believing could be so time consuming? But those days are behind me. No, not the overachieving part. I still work until I'm a puddle of exhaustion at night trying to prove God's non-existence. - "Interlude: My Part-Time Cult"
boice is obviously an author who loves writing and has a "good ear" for voice, and he's not afraid of authorial presence in his deeply personal work that many post-post-post modern nitwits and university wonks frown upon. I enjoyed the read. I'll conclude with another favorite passage from Screwball Comedy:
Why in hell would you name an upscale jazz club Tingle? I kept half-expecting a top-heavy chick to stroll on stage stripping to "Kind of Blue." At least that's what tingle made me think of. But hey, that could've just been my dirty mind running wild. That's what you get for choosing your entertainment from the Yellow Pages.
Oh. By the way, if you put "boice" in spell check, "bodice" is the suggested correction.
(Insert smiley face here.)
- review by David Herrle 7/2006
© 2006 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved