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Summer 2009 - BOOK REVIEW by Ryn Gargulinski
"Close Encounters"
Short stories by Jen Michalski
So New Publishing
ISBN: 978-0977815135

Several overwhelming feelings pummel the reader of Jen Michalski’s book Close Encounters. But the biggest of all is gratitude.

You don’t become grateful you finished the book, mind you, as these quick-paced, adorable stories could go on forever. You want them to go on forever because of their incredible intrigue.

You are grateful, instead, you have never experienced what befalls many of Michalski’s characters.

The colorful cast in this collection of vignettes includes a stripper, a lost kid, a runaway teen, an assistant for a boss from hell and a man who can only find peace by ramming his car and his wife into oncoming traffic.

Gratitude, anyone?

If the characters don’t outright die at the end, they are bruised, battered, broken or driven insane.

This is good stuff.

Even though this potpourri largely features the dark, depressing and darkly and depressingly ironic, Michalski makes it work.

Although the stories’ topics and outcomes may be bleak, the language and colorful descriptions are anything but.

One reason is her delicious descriptions. In the story “The Body,” main character Lincoln, who finds a body in the woods, muses about her mother’s appearance. “Her body was faded, shapeless in some way, like an erased form that still clung defiantly to the paper.”

“Our Place in the World”’s main character and stripper Sandra describes the mentally challenged man whose friend drag him to visit the club on his birthday. “(I can see) Chuckie’s face of terror, its flat paleness like a pancake just poured onto the griddle, his rounded, close-set eyes and small, beak-like lips….”

Even the description of a neighborhood opening and then slamming their doors shut after the main character’s public outburst in “The Disappearers” makes the reader pause to savor it. “He opened his mouth, ready to atone and explain the turn of events in his life when, just as quickly, their doors flapped shut, like dominoes, up the street.”

Although the stories’ topics and outcomes may be bleak, the language and colorful descriptions are anything but.

Another major selling point of the collection is Michalski’s drastic wit, especially in the face of things most dire.

In the story “Algorithm,” the main character is simply loaded with laughs. His younger sister, Tara, has gone missing. But that does not stop the acutely rollicking observations.

After describing his mother’s recently resurrected habit of smoking again and dressing like Annie Hall, he talks about his dad’s routine. “My father’s habit was to just look like hell.”

He also surmises what has become of his sister. “Or was Tara wandering through the school as I sat staring at the stars, taking one wrong turn and finding herself in the boiler room, forced to eat rat feces to survive?”

We either have to stop and breathe, stop and think or stop and shake our heads at the absurdity or horror of it all.

In “The Assistant,” overbearing and horrific celebrity homemaking diva Diana Spriggs is a household name—and employee horror. She drives her line of assistants insane, even making them sleep in bed with her so she can keep an eye on them. But Spriggs, of course, does it with such humor. She describes how her latest assistant is upsetting her pets, which usually sleep in her bed. “Bobo and Shnitzy didn’t like it, but what have they done for me lately, except shit in my Italian stilettos?”

Many moments throughout the book merit an actual “laugh out loud” response. Even if the reader is not laughing, she will emit a series of other sounds while reading the collection. These includes loud sighs, giggles, tsks or gasps and even applause.

Some of these sounds effects may bloom forth while we are slithering through the smooth prose, while others will knock us in the head like a meat tenderizer when we get to the endings.

In the vein of Guy de Maupassant or the great O. Henry, Michalski closes the stories with a definite twist, a real stopping point. We either have to stop and breathe, stop and think or stop and shake our heads at the absurdity or horror of it all.

The story “The Time Machine” is an awesome example of this. This wisp of story is only two pages long, but large in impact and surprise. Main character LaShauna Jackson relates her sad life as she ponders playing in a rusted piece of garbage near the lake, a.k.a. the time machine. While I will not wreck the twisted twist of an ending, let’s suffice it to say it’s not what one would expect but the sad girl got perhaps the best time travel should could ever imagine.

Michalski’s material is also rife for analysis. Michalski states in her introduction that this collection, aptly titled Close Encounters let’s us examine the encounters between the characters, as well as our own. “(These encounters) awaken in us truths that light up the universe far more vividly than any religion or scientific theory could ever hope to. At the very least, they inform us, usually in spectacular fashion, that we are not who we thought we were.”

For that, too, we are grateful.


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