-Reviewed by Rory O’Sullivan-
For the uninitiated, Armchair/Shotgun is a biannual compendium of contemporary fiction, poetry, visual art and authorial insight. It is published by a team of active writers operating out of New York, and the journal prides itself in having no regard for the credibility or background of its contributors.
As its submissions page claims, “Good writing does not know one MFA program from another. It does not know a PhD from a high school dropout…and it does not care what you have written before. Good writing knows only story.”
Indeed it is difficult to ignore the importance this journal places upon the purity of ‘story’, such is its ability to distract, grip and absorb you. Many of the pieces illustrate grassroots story-telling at its very best – with three contributors making their début bow – and there is a freshness and a spice to this collection that brings to mind the originality of the Beat generation.
All the while, however, there is a certain darkness that underpins the thematic basis of this edition of Armchair/Shotgun. Martyrdom, paternal jealousy, entrapment, escapism, conflict, redneck family strife: these are just some of the themes at work here.
Convinced he is leaving his troubles behind, adolescent Wes Spires sets off on a petulant escape through the southern states in Jason Culpepper’s ‘Hammer Lane’, a short story on which the edition closes. Derelict small-town streets, nosy sheriffs and oppressive heat form the backdrop to an uncomfortable journey that has no end. Wes dodges his way from one stolen car to the next as he presses forward, weaving between one interstate and the next. But for what end-game neither the protagonist nor reader ever know.
Building on the theme of insecurity through unenviable existence, Martin Shackleford invites us to feel pity for his protagonist, John Peters, in ‘The Kill Sign’. John is a desperate character whose miserable sex life is compounded by his dog’s rampant ‘seeing-tos’ of a poodle belonging to a stripper in the nextdoor trailer. A stripper whom, predictably, John tries – and fails – to get into bed with. As John exclaims to his testosterone-fuelled pet,
“You can’t keep doing this,” I tell him. “It’s no way to behave,” I say. “You know,” I finally let out, “you’re fucking my operation up something fierce.”
The Naturalistic parallel between Man and beast is an obvious one, but provides a subtle and timely humour: the world of trailer-trash tail-chasing that Shackleford creates so vividly through his characters’ struggle is hosed down by the frankly hilarious sympathy we have to concede for John’s hapless state of affairs.
Albeit through an unsettling bloodbath, the virtue of self-worth is explored in Kevin Brown’s ‘The Long Short Road’. It follows the plight of a young boxer who, after years of fighting repression at his father’s hands, encounters the wrath of his girlfriend’s jealous ex-lover. The graphic description as he crawls towards the lights of a village in the dusty, hot night after taking a deep stab wound to the gut points towards a gruesome ending. However, our victim stops – bent double and clutching his bleeding belly – to envisage himself back in the ring. But rather than confronting the man who thrust the blade into his body, it is his father upon whom he imagines exacting revenge, “Meeting his eyes, I raise my guard and move forward, and in the center of the ring, we come together as warriors.”
Four miniature collections of poems and prose poems are interspersed between the short stories – each section ‘signposted’ by quirky etchings of rural and urban charts that come as a pleasant surprise. However, there is little respite from the dark tone.
Alanna Bailey makes a total of five contributions in verse: she kicks off with a chilling ode to her grandmother in ‘Grandma’, tracking her demise from the physical (“Saw the road maps of / wrinkles deepen down your forearms”) to the mental (“you / couldn’t find your son’s name in your mouth”).
In my favourite of hers, ‘But We Didn’t Wear Black’, death is dealt with indirectly, focusing on the effect of someone’s passing away on people they never knew. The canons that appear between the second line of one stanza and the first line of the next are thrown up as deliberate obstacles, helping create an appropriate sense of awkward distraction and an unwillingness to move forward.
Readers will also enjoy two pieces of visual art: one, an excerpt from Sono Osato’s Silent Language, No. 6 and, two, a photo essay – Someplace – by Cory Schubert. And there isn’t a knife or a trailer camp in sight.
Schubert offers a collection of eight photographs of Los Angeles – one of which bleeds across the front cover of this issue – and they convey an unmistakable absence of human life. Osato’s excerpt explores the relationship between language and topography, and you have to inspect it at close quarters in order to fathom its components and their purpose. The interview that introduces it here offers a few clues, but I would be cautious not to be sucked in by her – at times, pretentious – wanderings as to what makes a viable piece of art.
A profile of Jesse Ball is also featured. One of the journal’s editors, Kevin Dugan, gives a laudatory and accessible account of the author’s life and work. The bias for choosing Ball to ‘endorse’ this edition is rather blatant. His pure fascination with originality and his eccentric means of extracting it (we are told he urges his students to partake in derizes, a type of aimless wandering that helps free the creative mind, while also conducting seminars in courtroom fashion in order to probe the genesis of ideas) are more than just a nod to the refreshing originality contained within this issue of Armchair/Shotgun.