Stories in the Worst Way
by Gary Lutz
A review by Kevin Sampsell
In the mid-1990s there was a small group of writers published by Knopf that all had the same pedigree, among them Noy Holland, Brian Evenson, Ben Marcus, Diane Williams, and Gary Lutz. They were all discovered by infamous editor and author Gordon Lish. Around that same time, Lish disappeared from the company, leaving these daring new authors with a marketing and publicity department that had no clue how to promote their often brilliant work. It could be argued that these writers, especially Marcus and Lutz, were too strange (or like Lish, so obsessed with language and its hundreds of nooks and crannies as to become difficult) to market to a general hardcover book-buying public. Few of these books saw paperback release and many were remaindered. These authors worked through their obscurities and have found respectable audiences for their continued published works, with the exception of Lutz, whose time is spent teaching and working on a literary web site called 5 Trope.
The short story collection, Stories in the Worst Way, which Lutz saw released in 1996 (the same year he received an NEA fellowship), is the only book in my home that I reread on a regular basis. For a long time I didn't want to tell anyone about its brilliance, in the hopes that I might be able to soak up Lutz's skills through osmosis. Every story is so highly stylized and compacted that I always find something alarming that I hadn't noticed before. Even reading random sentences is enough to satiate any craving for linguistic fiascoes. Try the first sentence of the story "Mine": "Do what I do: come from a family, have parents, have done things, shitty things, over and over and over." That sentence sketches out the feelings of many Lutz characters -- ones (told from both male and female voices) that secretly despise family and co-workers, that do malevolent things for the sake of analyzing their effects on other people. This also is where much of the dark humor comes from, and believe me, these are extremely funny (and sometimes extremely short) stories (36 in 162 pages).
In one of the best stories, "Certain Riddances," the narrator, who does his cubicled work so fast he finds time to secretly and elaborately harass his colleagues, tells of an instance in his childhood where he felt the impediment of a grandfather's belated birthday gift: "What he had mailed to me was a big, gleamless omnibus set of board games. On the lid of the box, the words MY TREASURE CHEST OF GAMES: A DIFFERENT GAME FOR EVERY DAY OF EVERY WEEK OF THE YEAR were spelled out in runny, unweighted block letters. Inside were an arrowed cardboard spinner, a pair of bleary, chalkish dice, an unwaxed deck of playing cards, some plastic markers, a dozen or so flimsy, tri-fold game boards, each printed on both sides, and an unstapled book of instructions. The whole set struck me as trappy and degrading. I felt as if somebody else's life were being lowered over mine and that it would remain there, bestraddling and overruling, for a whole year."
Lutz's deliciously warped and mocking prose is flavored with a Cormac McCarthyesque flair for words that are either made up or bent just slightly to suit the narrator's whim music is described as "jinkly" or "splatted out," a girl's legs are "splodged" with bites, a kid is "unwieldable," a night of sleep is "unbottoming." You can't help but smile when, near the end of the book, a story called "I Am Shy a Hole" starts out: "I hate it when it gets all languaged around like this."
Of course when most writers hit overdrive into their stylistic gratuities, they end up sacrificing emotional depth. Lutz somehow leapfrogs this problem despite the sometime cold shrugging feel of his characters. Instead of relating their emotions via their hearts, they try earnestly to reveal themselves through language ("There is almost too much truth in the words when I say I was holding the job down. The fact is that I was a weight on it, keeping it from getting done.") or the awkward bodies that encase it ("All too often, though, my life came along and I joined up with it reconcerned myself with it to the full, enlisted in movement already under way, stood up to myself, made out how my body was lost on me anew."). In a world of literature that is sometimes too bogged down in style or overwrought with manipulative emotion, the work of Gary Lutz is dazzling and deeply entrenched in the realistic comedy of the human body. Thankfully, it was recently republished (read: salvaged!) by 3rd Bed, an experimental literary magazine from Rhode Island. It's a second chance for readers to discover this great writer.