The Weirdness and The Insides

Or, Saving the World, One Personal Demon at a Time

Let’s talk about magic. It’s relevant in this case and inescapable anyway. Magic is the natural byproduct of reality, the dark particle that got away but might yet be coaxed back to make things whole. Magic makes life more interesting, more convenient. It endows its practitioner with some kind of control, and so it thrives among the bored, the weary, and the nervous. The wonderful thing about magic is that it doesn’t exist except in relief against its own nonexistence. Televisions and washing machines serve the same purpose as magic and are at least as consequential, but they can be purchased with common currency; magic is as intimate and exclusive as one’s imagination. It is always out of reach of the unannointed masses and picky about who it chooses to rub the lamp. No surprise, it is everywhere nowadays, a programmable pop culture remote control for a random universe in which full employment and satisfying relationships are inextricable from the continued existence of humankind.

The Weirdness and The Insides

The protagonists in Jeremy P. Bushnell’s The Weirdness (2014) and The Insides (2016), both from Melville House, are overtaken by magic not of their seeking. They prefer a world in which hard work and good choices will get you where you want to go. Hard work, though, is, well, hard, and making good choices is sometimes beyond one’s control. Except, not really.

The Weirdness opens like the shaggy dog story of a standup comedian: “Billy Ridgeway walks into a bar.” (Billy himself later attempts to improvise a Moth style routine that opens with an old joke about a man meeting his shoes in Heaven. Only the Devil laughs.) Billy’s slacker life is rambling, unfocused, even pointless, but has more of the shaggy dog in it than he knows. He’s a Hell Hound, and Lucifer has a pressing need for his special abilities. Billy must retrieve a certain waving cat or the world and everything in it will be destroyed by a bored and weary warlock, who, like many people, has spent too much time embracing inertia at Starbucks. As an added incentive, the Devil offers to get Billy’s book published. Billy knows the father of lies shouldn’t be taken at his word, but temptation is not temptation if it isn’t complicated.

Ollie Krueger, in The Insides, is well aware that using magic to get what you want involves Possible Consequences. She abandoned the little magic she knows after “nudging” from the universe all that she really wanted: family. With hard work and good decisions she built a happy life, which she then destroyed with a single bad decision the nature of which she fails to understand. Or, more to the point, she fails to try to understand, working hard not to regret, not to cast or accept blame, not to even feel the absence of her partner and young son. “You can’t fix the past,” she tells herself by way of refusing to address the future. She does not use magic to squash the universe back the way she liked it, perhaps because she has considered the Possible Consequences, perhaps because she has boxed herself into a Limbo of blinkered indecision, not able to move either forward or back.

The fate of the world is a powerful motivator, at least for Bushnell’s villains, and the world in The Insides is threatened by a pig-faced white supremacist called Pig, who is seeking a magic conquering sword, or rather shard, that Ollie’s coworker is using to butcher goats and cows and, ironically, pigs. Her suspicion that her fellow meatcutter is cheating in their friendly competitions trips Ollie into the role of world saving witch, though the importance of the shard is not known to her until fairly late in the game. She flees from her pursuers, fearful only for her life. Unaware that she cannot shake them, she changes course mid-flight from running from danger to running to the comfort of her family. Having gotten a shove from the universe, so to speak, she is at last moving, feeling her way toward fixing whatever can still be fixed. That she asks Lover No. 2 to drive her home to Lover No. 1 is a pretty clear sign that Ollie still doesn’t quite understand the good decision/bad decision thing. But she’s learning.


There is an avocado pit-sized seed of ambiguity in the conclusions of both books. The future, like the creatures that inhabit the backstage of time and space, is slippery. Billy, true to form, through all his encounters with a devil up against a deadline, has failed to make any kind of commitment, but in the end his slacker recalcitrance forces a deal from the Devil. This wolfman is no Christ figure, however; the sacrifice will fall on someone else’s plate, which Billy feels badly about, but he effectively adds it to his list of future catastrophes over which he has no “direct control,” “like global warming, or the world’s collective failure to develop a superpowered laser to blow-up giant earth-threatening asteroids.” But at least, he has taken up his cross, such as it is, and resolved to do something with it. Ollie, on the brink of moving forward, glimpses pieces of her future but is unable to construct a single narrative from the fragments. She knows only that there is a future to be built with hard work and decisions of one kind or another. She is not aware that there is another factor she has allowed to slip beyond her control.

The Inside—the backstage of time and space—is not Hell, but it has its hound. Pig employs Maja, a grim Scandinavian psychic, to track down the shard. “You make an ordinary thing magical just by paying attention to it,” she tells Pig. She has the ability to read the past—that is, the attention paid to—any object, including people. Like Ollie’s future, Pig’s past is fractured, scrambled, impossible to read. Later, Pig tells Maja, “all magic is is just working with energy. Get enough energy and you can arrange it into patterns and then you can do stuff with it….You can punch a hole in the world.” Or disarrange your life so that it makes no sense at all. Maja and Pig are coming at the same thing from different directions. Ollie demonstrates the intersection using magic to close a portal to the Inside with the energy of her mind and heart using a plastic party favor kazoo that reminds her of her son. Among the Possible Consequences, however, is the cost. Ollie immediately recognizes the exchange required to push the universe around as the cherished memento crumbles to dust in her hand. Pig is barely human, an eyeless mask, consumed by boredom and hatred. Maja has become the kind of person she herself finds the most dangerous and repulsive, one “who has done bad things, but who has done them with some degree of discomfort, who has done them knowing that they were wrong, fully anticipating to be troubled by them but electing to do them anyway, in the name of some greater good.” Neither Maja nor Pig seem to be aware that they have paid with their humanity.

The book is not titled The Inside. To get the sly hint, the reader should look at the cover and go with her gut. Yes, gut. The carcasses that Ollie carves into boutique cuts are hollow. Their insides have been removed. The yawning, cavernous hollowness of the main characters, what’s missing, what remains, what may yet fill it up, is what the book is about. The Inside, like any backstage, provides all kinds of access, including to the inner workings of the people who enter it. To Pig, the Inside is a supply closet; to Ollie, it is a shortcut. To Maja, it is a friend, the conductor through which she hears the voice of the sun and comprehends the magic of ordinary objects. Stepping through it, she is able to return to and reconstruct a fateful day, to take it back and change everything. Maybe, everything.


The current wave—the tsunami—of supernatural themed works is not surprising. Religion used to be the lens and language through which creative types examined and described human experience. Without a common Sunday School education to disseminate it, the language of Christianity has wandered off in the direction of Latin and Hebrew. The Joe DiMaggio of Hemingway and Simon & Garfunkle, for example, was a recognizable Christ figure in his day; the layers of meaning in his literary incarnation didn’t have to be explicated.

The need for a cultural iconography continues, though, and certain handy motifs have been recycled and repackaged. The Devil, especially, continues to fascinate, but not the relatively faceless biblical Satan. Bushnell’s Lucifer is a funny guy. A liar, yes, but everyone in Billy’s universe lies. Deceit and betrayal are commonplace. The Devil is a member of the club rather than its driving force. At least he has the virtue of being dapper. He knows where to get the best coffee, the best pot. He shares, and he is reasonable. Where the Devil is companionable, of course, God remains a mystery. An absence. Even a convenient whipping post. On the other hand, there is room to expand the iconographic pantheon. Bushnell’s deus ex machina descends as Krishna, Billy’s nominally Hindu best friend being the only one with the presence of mind to pray for help. Krishna’s concern, however, is strictly legal and untempered with mercy, sympathy, or a sense of right not specifically outlined in the treaty he keeps in his spiffy briefcase. Of the two supernatural beings in the room, he’s not the one you would invite to a barbecue.

Morality comes deity-free in The Insides, the systems free-standing but wobbly. Ollie, despite her fascination with magic is reluctant to use it because of her deep discomfort with cheating, yet she appropriates a bit of Buddhist wisdom to rationalize her stasis: “You don’t have to want more. You don’t need to want anything at all.” What she tells herself she doesn’t need to want is her son. Maja unambiguously declares that killing people is wrong, then threatens to raise her rates if she is going to be required to disguise her hypocrisy. She clings to a vestigial conscience, her Archive—a memorial zip file containing the package that was her brother, whom she endows with the moral virtues she excludes from her own reasoning.


The dubious names of the anti-black magic Right-Hand Path of the first book and the Righteous Hand father-son genocidal foundation of the second point to the essential nature of real evil, using the ordinary magic of the real world: words. Each group sees itself as the Right Hand of—God?—the greater good for which people imagine they are permitted to do bad things, to unleash their inner wolves? (Even the Devil complains of the sadism of the self-righteous.) They use words to cloak their intentions, to generate confusion. Words can lacerate without the burden of mass; words can heal without pills and bandages. Ollie marvels at how much personal disaster she can shove down inside herself and longs for the non-magical magic of her partner’s words, “the way he could seem to reach into her skull and help her to untangle the snarled emotions she’d jammed away in there.” Like the heroes of many novels, Billy Ridgeway is a writer. He remains vulnerable to the deceits of men and devils, as well as unpublished, until he gains control of his words, asking the questions he means to ask, saying what he thinks, confessing what he feels.

Magic as a literary device has always been more than an adolescent means of fleeing the evil of banality or giving shape to angst. Ovid, for whom Bushnell names a bar, made a lasting career of changing people into trees and birds and spiders, involuntary expressions of their individual natures. Bram Stoker proposed a human shell with an animal nature as the ultimately fearful specter, one anyone might become, if not through bat bite then through accident, disease, senility, or mental disorder. But our perspective, our worldview has changed. Are animal natures really all that bad or even very different from our own? These days, vampires argue with their girlfriends and werewolves play team sports. Billy, almost as inert as a person can be, has a killer wolf alter ego that is neither his fault nor entirely undesirable. Pig, the evilest monster of them all, is a delusional racist, a mutant selfish gene, though his choice of animal nature forecloses any possibility of readers mistaking him for a sexy beast.

Bushnell’s magic is not burdened with the YA earnestness of Pottermania or the giddy false morality of Twilight, but neither is it cynical. His humor is normalizing rather than parodic or farcical, fitting nicely with post-Potter (or more precisely, post-Sean of the Dead) domestic fantasies, such as Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Shmos have been going on magical quests since at least the Faerie Queen, but the trope has been as durable as any in literature—the path to a purposeful life choked with poppies and the miracle that makes it possible to wake up and break free. Bushnell’s heroes don’t need magic or magical universes to know what they want or even to get what they want. As in real life, they are paralyzed by self-doubt, not voodoo. To deliver the kick they need to get moving, Bushnell elevates the very real weirdness of real life with a measure of Pig’s energy. The results are engaging and hilarious but thoughtful explorations of living with one’s choices and the Possible Consequences.

The Crawford County Sketchbook

Or, Nothing Good Happens up at the Old Quarry

Tom Janikowski’s The Crawford County Sketchbook (2015) is a little Red Hen book—one of those very literary, character driven, language-as-deadly-weapon novels in which nothing much happens—virtuous man murdered by sociopathic sheriff. You know, small town stuff. Multiple (many, many), apparently randomly arranged narratives pile up, building a kaleidoscopic vision of a tiny backwater Southern town in which the strangest, yet strangely plausible, things happen.

The Crawford County SketchbookRed Hen is a prestigious small press specializing in literary novels and poetry. Literary novels are frequently described as character driven rather than plot driven. The great majority of novels produced and sold are commercial novels that are meant to be read for fun—thrillers, for instance, in which the story line is fairly linear and the villains are sinister and the hero cunning and brave and there’s money changing hands and guns blasting and cars and bodies flying everywhere, maybe a vampire or two—action, action, action. Literary novels are said to be more staid. The characters hardly ever blow up anything and if they steal money they are just as likely to stow it in a mattress for sixty years until some slow moving nephew discovers the loot and does something silly like burn it in a convenient wood stove. A reader who wants a fast paced Man in a Hole novel may complain that literary characters just sit around pondering existential realities. Yet, for patient readers, literary novels are capable of wide-eyed explorations of violence and perversity.

In The Crawford County Sketchbook, each impressionistic chapter is narrated by a different character, with a few returning to contribute an additional fragment. The reader has to read closely to figure out who these people are and how they are connected. The timeline is not straightforward. The events do not fit neatly together. The chief event of the novel, the murder of Peter Switchback, is not detailed, and the lead up to and aftermath of the murder have to be sifted from the accretion of gossip, testimony, and dream. There is also a lengthy and compelling narrative about a man who swallows a finger not belonging to himself that sidetracks the scattershot accounts of the Switchback murder, echoing without paralleling the primary story line. This is the closest the novel gets to telling a story from beginning to end, yet even this relatively traditional narrative is full of tangents, and the physical action, aside from finger swallowing and a well-aimed punch, consists mostly of laying in the grass.

Each character’s account is heavy with interior reflection, slow, keen, damaged, terrifying, and all, except maybe Peter Switchback, an educated man, circumscribed by the narrow, stifling confines of a small rural town. In the literary mode, Janikowski has taken small town stuff—rape, murder, grisly farm accidents—and used it to explore the isolation of the inarticulate. Crawford County is populated by people bursting with insight they have little ability to express, let alone share; rage and resentment that can only be turned to violence; native benevolence limited and deformed by ignorance.

The characters are very carefully delineated by their language. Some speak in a thick dialect, some in lines of poetry. Ignorance and intelligence, which do not necessarily align, are revealed in the expressions of half-formed thought—strivings toward the sublime or urgent do-loops of instinctual fear. Language is instrumental as a literary device and also as a fundamental component in the personalities of Crawford County—yes, even as a deadly weapon if you consider Sheriff Morgan’s ruminations, going round and round in his murderous squirrel cage of brain, to be what drives him to commit revenge, the pointless end game of generations of Morgans. Impulse founded on a lifelong meditation of virtue is no match for cunning nurtured like an evil sourdough.

Crawford County is described in its prelude as having sold its soul for a bowl of grits, a “defeated expanse of God’s creation.” Whether a person thrives there depends on their ability to perceive its meager sources of contentment; the ambitious, the restless see only dust and poverty, a gothic wilderness. The narrator illustrates his point with an anecdote about a dismemberment, hilarity springing from the horror as the only adequate response. In the bookend farm accident, another dismemberment, the response is mysterious—perhaps a flailing and incomprehensible attempt at humor—and disastrous. Some folks, it seems, are simply doomed, deprived of the gift of knowing how to wring happiness from living. Turning away from these people, all people, in all their variety, Janikowski suggests, is a form of self-denial, of self-imposed ignorance and isolation.

Gravity’s Rainbow and Trilby, Or Altered States

Trilby, Gravity's Rainbow, recommended reading book literatureI have books stashed all over the place—one in the car, one by the bed, one in the private library—so that I always have something to read while my engine is idling. Recently, I made the mistake of reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch at the same time. Way, way too many drugs. Narrators flying all over the place. (I’m now in recovery with more sober selections.) Tartt’s novel, being contemporary, wasn’t on my Gap List, but the third selection in my altered states themed reading adventure, George du Maurier’s Trilby, was.


This fun little novel isn’t widely read now, but it was The Da Vinci Code of 1894. The three young gentlemen at the heart of the novel are British artists living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1860 or so. The fourth member of the quartet is an artists’ model named Trilby O’Farrell. She’s generous, funny, free spirited and of course they are all at least a little in love with her, one of them truly, madly, deeply. The utterly and obliviously tone-deaf Trilby flees the Latin Quarter and disappears. Time passes and she is discovered by the artists (now respectable and living back in England) to be the latest singing sensation sweeping European concert halls as La Svengali. The name Svengali remains with us as a term for a mentor with inappropriately controlling powers, for Trilby’s profoundly creepy husband/handler uses mesmerism—hot and trendy in the fin de siècle—to train her to sing as no diva has ever sung before—like him, if could sing like a girl. Anti-semitism warning: Yeah, it’s wild.

Gravity’s Rainbow

The drug trips are the least weird thing about this book. In a nutshell, a man discovers that there is some mysterious biological connection between himself and a particularly terrifying missile deployed by the Germans during WWII. He is not the only one to have associated his erections with the missile’s guidance system, and as he escapes from conspiracy to wider conspiracy, his personality disintegrates. The cast of characters is huge, shifting, doubling, ghostly, comic, and includes a semi-divine light bulb.
This book is hard. I’ve read several critical analyses, hoping one of them would illuminate some of the more obscure points, but haven’t had a whole lot of luck so far. Probably, I will end up making another pass at this one, because I have theories that nag at me like an unfinished logic puzzle. Or a Flannery O’Connor short story. But, as I said, I am for now enjoying the solid, earth-bound good sense of a second-tier Victorian.

Tolkien in the Ukraine

books and literature recommended readingLet’s Play Name That Book

Can you identify the source of this extract? Place and people names have been removed to make it marginally harder.

At times great wars would fill these territories, and then the sea of grass seemed to become a real ocean in which tides of crimson _____ caps flowed between horizons. The gray _____ spread there in crescent waves, and the winged regiments of _____ horsemen rode in their leopard and wolf-skin cloaks draped over glittering armor, and then a forest of spears and lances with horsetail standards and a blazing rainbow of many-colored banners rose over the _____. At night, the neighing of warriors’ horses and the howl of wolves echoed in dim prophecy through this wilderness, and the booming of kettledrums and the blare of copper horns and bugles flowed all the way to the misty Lakes of _____ and to the shores of the _____seas…. Continue reading

Books About Heroes Who Want to Be Alone

Books and literature recommended reading lonesome heroes

I’ve been working. Nice to have some writing to do that doesn’t have a deadline. Herein is a short report on my progress through the Tottering Stack.

The Bone People

I’ve been meaning to read this one for about a decade and a half. Gorgeously, crazily written by Keri Hulme back in the early 80s, this is about as far as one can get from workshop fiction. Hulme is a New Zealander, and the book is Maori in POV. The protagonist is part Maori, estranged from family, blocked in her artistry, and deeply Continue reading

Books or literature for recommended reading

The Tottering Stack

I’ve described my Gap List, and you’ve probably said to yourself, “That’s all?” Never judge a list by its brevity. I’ve been reading books by dead people for a long, long time, which makes me moderately well read. The Gap List is to fill gaps so that on my deathbed I will be able to consider with satisfaction that I am truly well read.

There is, of course, the addendum to the Gap List: the Tottering Stack.

Read_stackI rarely come home from a book safari with more than one or two titles from the Gap List. What I usually find are books by authors I like or have some reason to believe I might like. Often, I find books that aren’t on the Gap List but might as well be. Books by people who are still alive (which probably shouldn’t be held against them). Books that have a knowing following and have a certain nerd cred. Books that had their fifteen minutes of fame and now moulder among Continue reading

Books and literature for recommended reading

The Gap List

The concept of the Gap List came from a conversation I had with a colleague. I said, “Have you read [some classic]?” To which she replied, “It’s one of my gaps.” We then talked about the books we intended to read but hadn’t gotten around to yet. Many years later, I found myself in a bookstore trying to remember any of the titles on my mental list of need-to-read novels and came up blank. Again.

So I sat down to compile a list. I still couldn’t remember more than a handful of obvious titles–the optional Austens, The House of Seven Gables, Boswell’s Life of Johnson. And a couple that I have had a hard time finding in bookstores: New Grub Street and Pedro Paramo. I knew there were about a million others, but I needed help. So I looked up other people’s top 100 lists and gleaned my own list of must-reads.

I wish I still had the original list, but I used to delete titles as I read them. The winnowed list is below. I keep it handy for when I find myself at a book store or used book sale or thrift shop. These are books that come highly recommended by somebody for some reason, but many of them are fairly obscure and hard to find. (Let me here Continue reading

The Turn of the Screw
Or, Mary Poppins in Collinwood

Why Do I Have to Read This?

Mary Poppins Collinwood Turn of the ScrewGoverness on the edge. Depraved ghosts, corrupted children. Great title admonishing us all for our perversity. What is not to like here? This is the touchstone of horror narrative. Yes, the sentences are sometimes long twisty things with oh-and-by-the-ways nested in them, but believe me, Henry James was just getting warmed up. His long novels have sentences so extended and convoluted you may need someone else to read for you while you go out and get a sandwich—you’ll have time to get back before the Continue reading

Ethan Frome
Or, The Man Who Tried to Blame It on the Cat

Why Do I Have to Read This? Edith Wharton, Doctor Who, Ethan Frome

The short answer is, you don’t. The apocalypse will come, and there will be no one handing out brownie points to the ones who actually read, mmm, let’s say, Ethan Frome, instead of Spark Noting it. If the short answer is all you crave in this short life, then, blithe spirit, you really do need to read Ethan Frome—so that you may internalize the moral of the story, which is: Life is short, unless you do something mindbogglingly stupid—for example, go for a short, fast answer on a doomed sled—in which case, it can end up being very, very long. Here are a few more reasons why: Continue reading