First a confession: my vision hasn’t been so hot for the last few years, which means reading hasn’t been a pleasure for quite a long time. Last night, I read Julie Innis’s Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture from cover to cover in one sitting, never losing a second thought about my vision. Brava, Julie Innis! I’m healed.
Or I should say the voices Innis creates have healed me. And maybe I should credit the curative powers of dark humor. You know fiction can heal when you tell a friend, “I read this hilarious story about an aging play-cop loser forced to part with his surrogate son—a chimp rescued from a lab—because of his mother’s promiscuity,” and your friend says, “Wow, that’s kind of sad actually.” “No!” you say. “It’s like Fargo. You know: the scene with the shredder?” And you both fall about laughing. Here’s the last paragraph of “Monkey”:
I didn’t explain to her that Monkey wasn’t suited for the world, that he lacked street smarts and I worried that at night he’d be afraid, the sounds of tigers below, their ears pitched toward the little whistling noise his nose made when he breathed. I think of Monkey still and hope he’s making out okay. Sometimes late at night when I’m on rounds, I pull the scanner’s microphone all the way out to its end and then I just let it go.
I feel for this tragic figure, and I think you do as well. We have to laugh, though. That’s how we deal with our tragic world.
The great short story writer has the ability to create not just one tragicomic world but lots of them. Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture includes nineteen of Innis’s worlds, each with memorable, mostly tragic characters, none of which try very hard to make sense of life and some who stretch the boundaries of magical realism. If magical realism is an art of surprises, Innis makes it an art of satisfying ones. I especially like the arrival of Annie in “Gilly the Goat-Girl,” a surprise I’ve decided not to ruin for you. Instead, here’s the opening paragraph of this brilliant tale of maternal love and misguided fashion choices:
I’ve never had much success with men. I’m sure it all goes back to my parents’ divorce. At least, I assume that’s what a therapist would tell me. Temping provides me with very basic health insurance, so mental health services aren’t covered. Grease burns, broken limbs, venereal diseases—check, check, and check. Ennui, angst, and depression—better just keep a mattress out under your window because no one’s going to be there to talk you in from the ledge.
I think this paragraph sums up the collective consciousness of Innis’s characters. They populate worlds where all the safety nets have holes, where you can bet the firemen will move the net away if you jump, where relationships don’t work. To say the characters’ relationships are dysfunctional would be so 1985. Innis’s characters are done with dysfunctional; they’re post-dysfunctional. They yawn at dysfunction. These worlds are devoid of sentimentality and answers.
At university a “few” years ago, I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio: a Group of Tales of Ohio Small-town Life. Just as Anderson assembles the quirky inhabitants of a single and fictitious community in Ohio, Innis gathers her cast on a continuum from Ohio to Brooklyn. There are no recurrent central characters and each story stands alone, but there are central themes: weariness with a world that doesn’t quite work, preoccupation with health problems, social problems, job problems . . . problems. But we still laugh. Anderson dealt with similar themes but through the decidedly less humorous lens of 1919 realism. The glue that holds Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture together is Innis’s community of broken-yet-strong characters, but it’s also her daring wit, her timing, and her enviable—humorous—dialogue.
Humor is like a tight-rope made of razor blades. Some writers who try it, come away with more cuts than it’s worth. Innis dances on razors. And she does this by being generous to her characters, indulging their whims, allowing them to be bizarre in their humanity, human in their absurdity. And this is the key to believability, an element of good fiction that eludes so many writers.
I’m particularly fond of the dialogue between Heller and Goldfarb in “Heller,” in which Innis pits Heller’s jealously against Goldfarb’s adolescent confusion so well. The dialogue in “Do” is pleasingly ballsy and Palahniukesque, and I hope both Innis and Palahniuk are mutually complimented by ballsy. In "Blubber Boy" it’s astounding how much Innis can do with such dialogic brevity (perhaps to channel, as in "Do," the truncated communication among certain types of men?). In fact, Innis builds all nineteen of these stories on a solid foundation of character voice rather than authorial voice.
I can’t end this review without talking about Innis’s female characters, who are chopped in half, turned into cars, "corrected" and of course tortured. It’s not so much that they are abused, ignored and misunderstood by men; a lot of these stories are more about these women’s reaction to their worlds and men. I think this point of view is best summed up in “The Next Man”:
The next man will be better, she hoped. He’ll belch and fart and slouch in his seat. She’ll twine her fingers through his rough pelt, put braids in his thick hair. They will eat their meat rare; they’ll tear it lustily from the bone.
Disappointment with men is a theme that ties many of these stories together: from “My First Serial Killer” about an inept killer and his bored victim, to “Habitat for Humility” about a couple subjected to prejudice because of the husband’s conspicuous consumption, and ending with “Fly,” a love story between an unsatisfied wife and an amorous, charming fly.
Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture is a contemporary community of characters—some grotesques, some from the heights of magical realism, some realistic portraits of men and women doing their best to cope with contemporary issues, searching for the way of Do but finding only an oversexed Sensei Vinnie telling them that “For every ass-kicker, there’s an ass. Yin and Yang.” In essence: don’t be such a pussy.
Julie Innis’s fascinating must-read short story collection Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture (Foxhead Books) is available HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE--so if you can't find the book, well, your vision is worse than mine.
Robert Vaughan interviews Julie Innis at Heavy Feather Review. Hilarious.
Originally from Cincinnati, Julie Innis now lives in New York. Her stories have been published in Post Road, Gargoyle, Blip, Fwriction: Review, JMWW, Connotation Press, Prick of the Spindle, Thunderclap!, and The Long Story, among others. She was the recipient of the 7th Glass Woman Prize for Fiction and was listed as a Top-25 finalist for Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers. She holds a Master's degree in English Literature from Ohio University and is currently on staff at One Story as a reader. Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture is her first book.
Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.