Tough Day for the Army

toughdayThe Short Version: A collection of slightly-off-kilter stories of romance, work, and ordinary life. Full of humor and invention, decidedly playful with the form, John Warner delivers – whether he’s telling the tale of an organ-grinder’s monkey, a beef slaughter plant, or a couple who grow poets on their farm.

The Review: John Warner’s novel The Funny Man didn’t make too much of a splash several years back. A damn shame, because it was a strange and funny sort of tale – a novel whose truly weird intricacies I was only reminded of after reading this collection of stories.  John has the rarefied pleasure of always being surprising, no matter how often I tell myself that I’m prepared for whatever he delivers. Perhaps because I got to know him first through his work as The Biblioracle (formerly a featured column at The Morning News, now a regular piece in the Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row), where he regularly surprised me with his insightful recommendations (every single one of which has been chronicled on this here blog).  I went into these stories on the eve of the Tournament of Books (where he is one of the longstanding official commentators) with an expectation of just normal short stories about everyday life and was delighted to find them, instead, recounting tales of lives just outside the ordinary.

As a writer (nay, editor-at-large) for McSweeney’s, I did know that John could be funny. Even if I hadn’t read The Funny Man first.  But I would almost call several of these stories goofy; there is a lightheartedness to the humor, a puckishness.  The opening story, “Nelson v. the Mormon Smile”, begins with this amazing sentence:

Nelson was worried about his balls, and because Nelson was the kind of person who tended to put his thoughts into words, he leaned over to the cubicle next to him and said to his friend/coworker, Jürgen, “I’m worried about my balls.”

This story continues to an expected post-collegiate end – but, as with nearly all of these stories, Warner brings it on an emotional level too. Nelson talks to the girl of his dreams, several people are forced to reevaluate what they previously understood to be “how they felt” about a person or persons in their lives, wars are fought and won and lost – and you feel each of these characters, for however briefly they may visit with us, as though they were fully realized.  They’re not, most of the time (purely a result of form; a six page story, not much room to fully develop anything. This is what makes short stories so difficult to pull off, I suppose.), but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel complete for the time that they’re with us. They aren’t constructs to serve a purpose, they aren’t complicated allegorical devices (except perhaps the monkey, but there’s a whole meta level to that so it makes sense) – no, they are people who pass through our lives (or, more accurately, we pass through theirs) for a few pages and then are gone again.

Also, I’m not sure it’s because he’s at McSweeney’s and so has spent a lot of time around excellently-named pieces or if McSweeney’s has so many excellently named pieces because of John – but damn, the man is good at naming stories.  My personal favorite was probably “Homosexuals Threaten the Sanctity of Norman’s Marriage” but they’re all pretty tremendous.  That story might also have been my favorite story in the collection; from the title on down, it’s hilarious and insightful on a personal and also cultural level. The title makes you think of Republicans and all that “sanctity of marriage” nonsense – and while the political aspect does pop up, it isn’t the point. Au contraire, there are literal homosexuals who appear to Norman and encourage thoughts & ideas that might destroy the sanctity of his marriage.  And they aren’t the thoughts you’d necessarily think they’d be, either.  Warner defies expectations about six times in that story alone and makes you laugh to boot.

I’d say that I loved nearly every story, for one reason or another.  “Second Careers”, about Christ as an ice hockey bruiser, is a riff on oral histories while “Corrections and Clarifications” is told completely in the form of newspaper corrections – and while the conceptual daring sometimes wears a little thin by the end, they never wear out entirely.  Warner has a sense of just how far to push it, knows right where the sweet spot is to get the maximum bang for one’s literary buck.  The stories that are less successful are still nobly attempted – and, to other readers, might well be more successful.  I’ll admit that I struggled through one story (I won’t tell you which) but I’d struggled through that day as a whole, so it was colored for me as a result.  It would’ve been poetic/funny if it had been “Tough Day for the Army” but, alas, humor was not on my side there.  Anyway.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.  The last story in particular, “A Love Story”, reminds me just how talented John is as a writer. The humor and goofiness he brings to many of the earlier stories is all well and good and while they’re all tempered with hefty doses of reality and emotional development, it’s that last one that really brings it all home. It’s a very human story, full of pretty much the whole spectrum of emotions even though it’s only maybe 18 pages long. And that’s John’s real gift: he can make you laugh til the cows come home, but he’ll get you in the heart every time. You forget, you don’t expect it even when you expect it – and then there it is.

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