Echoes from the Bear Creek Lending Library
by Gabriel Hart, 3.24am July 10th 2021
To my surprise, everything was unexpected. I learned the hard way — the longer you spend in Bear Creek, the less shocking everything becomes. Considering the aggressive fashion in which they manhandled me, as if my emotional outburst at the Lending Library was the crime of the century. Despite it being the longest sixteen hours I’ve spent anywhere, I was only kept at the closet-sized holding tank of the Bear Creek Police Station and Car Wash Duoplex overnight. There was a time decades ago where crime was at an all-time low in Bear Creek, they wondered what to do with all those empty holding cells. So they knocked down the dividing brick walls, then the front and back so you could drive a car through (they did this by actually driving a car through the wall to knock it down, since Bear Creek Demolition hadn’t been established yet). Now there are two ex-cops — one with a hose and one with a slivering bar of Ivory soap — making sure every car in Bear Creek looks sparkling new. The Mayor is convinced that no crimes can be committed as long as everyone’s automobile looks nice.
I don’t know if it was good news, bad news or even “news” at all, but when they led me out of the holding cell, they kept leading me, still handcuffed, until we got back to The Bear Creek Lending Library, where I was expected to continue paying off my debt to “society.” And that’s when it hit me, a large reveal of how it works in this bizarre place — every business, whether municipal or privately owned, is employed by ex-cons who have been made to return to the scene of their crime to continue their civic penance in some slave-based system of expired capitalism meets anarchic communism. That’s why every employee in Bear Creek has that dead look in their eyes.
Since nothing has ever been organized at the library — just towering, incongruent stacks of books all over the warehouse-sized cabin — the librarian who pressed charges on me, who is now my “boss,” says I need to put it all in some kind of order. Then, we’ll re-organize it onto the empty shelves. And when I say “we’ll,” I mean just me, because all she does is walk around with a clipboard, lowering her glasses as she stares at each stack. She nods smugly then checks something off as if to say, “Aha! Just as I thought…”
So, I’ve made myself useful, attempting to make some sense out of the Escher-esque spine-bound madness. Only, my first mistake was actually picking up a book — because once I opened Interrogating the Abyss by Chris Kelso, nothing else got done on my first day. I tend to have a divinity with books — they find me, and what better book could I have come across after being trapped in some criminal purgatory?
Then I realized why Kelso’s name sounded familiar — he’s the author of the Dregs Trilogy as well as the new Burroughs and Scotland biography, not to mention fifteen other novels; quite a resume for such a young man. What’s so unique about Interrogating the Abyss, is that he’s combined his fiction/prose/poetry/luminary interviews and non-fiction pieces as equal works of art in this collection — the black hole centerpiece being a section called “Voidness” in which he interviews ten authors about their views of the murky otherworld; where we either consciously submerge ourselves or find ourselves there, drowning in panic. Luckily, there is no wrong option — just the required thick skin to enter through its thin veil.
Immediately, Kelso turns me onto an overlooked auteur I should be hip to — the great Buddy Giovinazzo. Buddy G is most commonly known as director of Combat Shock, the Troma film that screams beyond the camp. Fallen to the fate of many misunderstood films, it was picked up by Troma for its off-the-cliff audacity, but failed upon its release due to misguided marketing. Most movie-goers thought they were going to see a Rambo-esque action flick — what they got was absolute nihilism on steroids and brown acid, like Richard Kern or Nick Zedd directing a war-torn PSA with Goblin doing the soundtrack. His interview in ItA was enough to make me seek out Combat Shock on YouTube and it delivered on every morbid promise. Must be seen to be believed.
I’m not sure how Kelso does it — how a poem like “Blood Eagle” follows an interview so seamlessly. Even when the forms change, he’s laying out a path for us, the anti-theme of this collection acknowledging the fierce individualism of each artist (including himself), while threading together the shared fraternity of transgression, its undertow we are all pulled into, as “drunken dreams become waking nightmares.” Even prose like “Will To Power takes on a seductive yet fragmented disembodiment, Kelso the ever-observant street-level gargoyle.
Interrogating the Abyss fills a large gap in our termite-devoured drift-wood counterculture, building new mosaics out of our dystopia’s shards from Kelso’s inherently dark philosophical perspectives. By the end, it inhabited the spirit of a pocket-sized RE/SEARCH journal or a High-Risk Books anthology where the subjects and the author/editor are euphorically blurred.
When I said “Something Gross,” out loud, Miss Warden of the Library’s head whipped around — she assumed I was talking about her. But I was referring to the next book in my stack. I checked the date: 2021. “No, Something Gross is the new book by Big Bruiser Dope Boy,” I said, hoping to smooth our equal yet mounting hatred; I didn’t want to be there, nor did she want me there, a mutual punishment. She shook her head, making another mark on her clipboard as I opened the book. “Don’t bother with that one,” she said. “It’s a prime example what Joyce Carol Oats recently described as ‘wan little husks of autofiction!’” “Well, that just makes me want to read it more,” I said, as she stormed out of the room. At least she knows who Joyce Carol Oats is, but vain attempts at common ground would have to wait — I was already balls deep in Something Gross.
It’s better she left — I could’ve explained further that the title refers to “The Time Ryan Gave Me Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea,” possibly the most bare-fanged story in this book that is marketed as a novel yet reads like a 230-page epic verse of anti-poetry. At first glance, the lines could be easily perceived as matter of fact; as if they’re merely statements of recollection rather than a chiseled work. But the deeper you go, the more complexity is revealed. There’s a no-bullshit deliverance of myriad emotion that stacks the more you get to know BBDB through these stories. On the surface, it’s the immersive melancholy of the gay club scene, where everybody is getting laid yet no one seems happy unless they’re doing another line of blow or getting laid again, shoulder to shoulder with everyone trying to outcrass or outcute each other.
There’s something refreshingly impartial about this kind of scathing critique from one of its own players, and the way BBDB tells it like it is, poetry is unnecessary — there’s nothing to decorate with self-conscious meter when he’s this kind of sharpened observer of the landscape, receiving superficial lines he’s heard over and over, so he can vomit it back out with starkness of acidic honesty. It’s so voyeuristic that it’s often painful to watch; especially the venomous, voluminous texts he sends a certain boy who, whether we are gay or straight, is sure to remind us of someone we’ve dealt with before: a fool who is so scared to death of love’s surrender that they mistake their mistreatment/neglect of others as their own deluded arms-length armor.
It’s deep, it’s petty, it’s heartbreaking, it’s hilarious — but like all good secrets, it all feels like extremely privileged information, and I’m grateful I stayed with it until the end. There’s a fantastic re-occurring line BBDB strategically employs where he sort of breaks the fourth wall. He waits for an especially outrageous nasty bit of dialogue, and before you can gasp and ring the cancelation bell, he reminds us, deadpan:
“I am telling you what they told me.”
It’s sort of insane what washes up here at the BCLL — like, how is the newest ExPat release here when The Librarian clearly doesn’t give a shit about one of the leading vanguards of modern literature? The second I saw Family Annihilator by Calvin Westra in the stack here, I decided I’m gonna steal it — if I ever make it out of here. As I feel the walls closing in on me here, with still not a book organized onto the shelves, Family Annihilator is keeping my morale up like no other book this year has. A sharp, clever, and hilarious meta-Turducken of a story — it’s a trip how every ExPat release manages to be a curveball to our sensibilities, and this time they chose fierce comedy to fuck with us. Stylistically, there’s some deadpan, clipped sentence Donald Barthelme in here, but I couldn’t see how anyone else besides Westra could write a story this specifically idiosyncratic. And again, it’s a good thing The Librarian walked out of earshot because I was howling at certain lines here — the way he weaponizes such mediocre cultural references, turning it on the reader in whittled, piercing forms, it kinda hurts to laugh. To explain the plot would be lost on others (“fuck, I dunno… you’re just gonna have to read it yourself for it to make sense lol)” but it would sit nicely on the shelf here with Joshua Chaplinky’s The Paradox Twins — another meta masterpiece of 2021 that takes the story within a story, a screenplay within a novel. FA is a possible commentary on how we are always stuck in our own heads, planning adaptations — larger projections — of our own lives before they’re even finished. But nothing can prepare the reader for the anti-climax of Family Annihilator — a neutered commentary on the mediocrity of love itself, where sometimes you can’t measure true domesticated comfort unless your significant other will hand you another sparkling water. And Westra did us a solid here: Refreshing.