A Moral Tale, and Other Moral Tales
by Josh Emmons
Dzanc Books, 2017

Josh Emmons’s first collection of short stories follows a man, a woman, an artist, a tiger, an egg, and more through a menagerie of tales consisting of both brand new concepts and classic fables rethought with refreshing imagination. A Moral Tale, and Other Moral Tales is aptly titled, as it exposes the reader to stories and vignettes that never slacken the reins, slinging eloquent and witty prose from beginning to end, all the while serving the world a measured dish of surprising lessons.

What makes Emmons’s book so successful is how diverse and balanced it is. Nothing about his writing style feels stale. Many writers fall into character and vocabulary patterns, but A Moral Tale consistently feels raw and unexpected with each new story. Every detail he employs is natural and necessary, constructing innovative plot architecture with firm support. Even Emmons’s very short stories are no less impactful than any other entry. “Jane Says,” a mere three pages-long, has a thirteen-year-old male prostitute hired by a different breed of deviants who pay him to do things like study math while the client does her taxes. Brevity does not steal poignancy from Emmons.

While reading the book I was also thrilled by the new bits of mythology and biblical allusions I was introduced to. The most informative or philosophical pieces for me were “Nu,” “Arising,” and “Humphrey Dempsey.” In “Nu,” I learned about Egyptian mythology, specifically Nu, which are “the primordial waters from which all matter originally came.” “Arising” takes us back to the time of the biblical deluge, but does it from the point of view of a tiger who is distracted from looking for his family and finding the ark by the same snake who tempted Eve. It’s one of the most overt moral tales, but it overflows with originality, especially for a story that’s been told a million times. “Humphrey Dempsey” is another case where Emmons takes a new spin on an old, familiar rhyme. He reimagines the story of “Humpty Dumpty” with an older hand, making the popular children’s song into an allegorical story of politics and deception. The moment after the reader realizes how clever Emmons is with these three stories in particular is the moment Emmons feels like a teacher to look up to and wait with hands under seat for the next word he has to offer.

The most classically dramatic selection was “Concord,” which read with a sensation akin to that of watching a romantic drama film. As a stickler for sticking to one point of view, this story drove at me with its three rotating main characters, but eventually showed me how beautifully it can be implemented if executed with skill. Emmons alternates fluidly in a way that brings each character’s path to a meeting point for a kismetic, hopeful effect. And his ardent conclusion is unforgettable:

And some of us were meant to find that one person, that fabled corollary who’d make the inadequacy we feel vanish due to the profusion that would be us, but there was to be no guarantee that the timing would be right or the foreknowledge reciprocated or the luck ours to do anything about it.

Josh Emmons is talented and versatile. Every turn of A Moral Tale’s 152 pages is uncomfortable and surprising in the best, most moving, even inspiring ways, which is why I say with confidence that it easily makes it into my top five books of the year. This isn’t a read that must be “taken on,” but rather a slick collection of episodes to carry with you, to keep on your person and meditate on its immortal messages.


Filed under: Book Review, Prose