Any Deadly Thing
by Roy Kesey
From its first lines, Kesey’s collection paints an unforgiving, even cruel, portrait of the world. A father attempts to cut his daughter’s hair. She screams, he grabs her, she bites him and runs off. As an opening sequence, it’s far from inviting, but Kesey’s keen sense of immediacy gives the action a primal, documentarian styled thrill. Later in the story, as the tension and violence escalates (as happens in many of the stories in this collection), it is Kesey’s devotion to character that keeps the story from veering into absurdity. At its core, the story is about a father and his daughter, and despite some unreal circumstances, Kesey’s collection
Dzanc Books 2013) is an intimate portrait of flawed people in search of redemption.
Familial and marital bonds are at the center of most of these stories, specifically the role of father and husband. Kesey’s intense situations demonstrate the limits of these connections, showing how strained relationships reaffirm and challenge notions of marriage and family. Often, they can be simultaneously disheartening and affirming, where his broken families (as in “Stillness”) manage to build bridges between generations only to burn the same bridges down. Yet the frequency of domestic drama and dysfunctional relationships is exhausting and ultimately makes several stories thematically redundant.
If the subject matter verges on monotony, the range of settings creates vivid distinctions between each story. Whether describing meth-infested backwoods or the protocol for handling attempted muggings in the capital of Paraguay (“if you do not let go, they will often scatter”), Kesey imbues the vast range of locales with tangible details.
The vividness of each location is due to Kesey’s beautiful, careful prose. Even in his simplest stories, bits of elegant language elevate the strained plot: “Northern California, he repeats, holding the words in his mouth like hummingbird eggs”. The collection’s best stories are its most eccentric stories, where his elegant writing is able to take center stage. In “Asuncion,” the narrator falls for his attempted mugger, only to begin a sexually charged, cat-and-mouse chase. Kesey’s narration perfects the line between affection and malice, dialing up the dread as the narrator’s actions become less altruistic and more predatory. In “Today/Tomorrow,” perhaps the collection’s strongest story, a man attempts to save his lover from an unknown stalker, the true hero is Kesey’s surreal, magical language. The story is a dream turned nightmare, delicately detailed throughout: “the birch trees spread their arms, hang like thieves, past you the cars ring and ring and the museum walls are a shadow box, headlights kaleidoscoping through the leaves, the wall sings with monochrome flurry and the accordion girl has stopped.”
In stories bound in reality, Kesey’s penchant for dramatic intensity occasionally undercuts his stories. In “Stillness,” a soap opera’s worth of family drama is condensed into a day of hunting, and the screaming conclusion feels awkwardly rushed. While the hunting sequence is riveting, the final twist derives its tension from dramatic clichés, sabotaging the story’s previously measured pace. In other stores, such as “Levee,” there is solid, tangible tension between father and son. However, Kesey shifts quickly between details of past and present, making the story ultimately feel haphazardly constructed. “Bloodwood,” whose powerful emotional core is the narrator’s connection with a wayward, drug-addled boy, is diluted by descriptions of his pet monkey and time working on the local radio station. There are powerful moments in nearly every story, but these often lose steam amid waves of unrelated details.
But when his stories are cohesive and tension is dialed up slowly, it is often breathtaking. In “Shadow Leaving Body,” what begins as a tale of a Japanese man’s futile attempts to find peace and quiet ends in an emotional gut-punch that is both tragic and humane. In “Scree,” a father lays with his sick son, attempting to fight off both dreams and his son’s sickness. Despite the fluid shifting between dreams and reality, the father’s devotion to his son is strikingly intimate: “the father starts rubbing his sons back, in case it helped, in case it helps.” And there are lighter stories, like the comic tale of an obsessive ornithologist who insists on studying hummingbirds or the downright romantic “Probably Somewhere,” that relieve the reader from the dark subject matte.
The collection’s final story, “Stump,” exemplifies the power and flaws of his collection as a whole. Describing a town schlump who follows a firemen call to help “a horse in a stump,” It’s overlong, elegantly written, and with an ending that is equal parts absurd and satisfyingly optimistic. Like his characters, Kesey’s collection isn’t perfect, but there is enough wrenching moments and lovely language to make a reader both exhausted and enthused by both the tense struggle and the faint glimmer of hope.