"The writing is sharp and unpretentiously thoughtful"– Kirkus Reviews
A young clerk gets caught up in a cost-saving scheme at work that rattles the Texas political establishment in this novel.
J.D. Wiswall has left his rural hometown of Brady, Texas, and moved into a tiny cinderblock house in Austin. He’s taken a job with the state, working as a data entry clerk for the Department of Unemployment and Benefits. His first day is unusual, as he finds his new boss, Brent Baker, outside of the office, passed out in some bushes. Brent claims he has epilepsy, but J.D. isn’t so sure. At work, his few colleagues consist of Deborah Martinez, a financially strapped mother of a grown son; Rita Jackson, a grandmother who runs the office lottery pool; and Conchino Gonzalez, a silent car fanatic. The duties are tedious, but Rita spices things up with hopes about a state contest. If the employees can generate an idea to save Texas money, there is a $10,000 prize. They plan to split the winnings if they succeed but have no good ideas. Back home, J.D.’s mother writes that his aunt is worried about him in the big city: “I keep insisting that you would never befriend hippies or smoke marijuana, but she is inconsolable.” Meanwhile, a reporter is called to the office of the Texas governor, a slippery partisan in a gold-plated wheelchair. He promises the journalist an exclusive, but she discovers something monumental on her own. At J.D.’s office, the hard-drinking Brent thinks he has found a way to claim that $10,000 and arranges a fateful meeting with the “Big Boss” that could be life-changing for all involved. Semegran’s (Sammie & Budgie, 2017, etc.) gently humorous foray into the depths of Texas’ bureaucracy takes a while to get going; after all, he is describing one of the more boring jobs around. But the pace picks up beautifully in the second half, as some chance occurrences and accidental muckraking come together in a manner worthy of Texas politics. Characterization is strong throughout the novel; the dialogue always rings true; and little touches add local color. For example, J.D. is never without pecan treats from his beloved hometown. The conclusion is notable for all that’s changed but also what will likely stay the same.
A comic sendup of state government that remains lighthearted, deadpan, and full of affection for both urban and rural Texas.
A father suspects his young son may hold the power to see the future in this novel.
Simon Burchwood is a tender father of two with a difficult life. A computer networking specialist who dreams of becoming an author, he spends an inordinate amount of time reflecting on his inadequacies and failures. Following the death of his ex-wife in a motor vehicle accident, Simon must raise Sammie, a bright as a button little boy with special needs, and his elder sister, Jessie, a competitive young girl with a ferocious love of taekwondo. Sammie wants a pet budgerigar (an Australian parakeet), which he plans to name Budgie. Simon begins to suspect that Sammie has unusual abilities when the child foresees his after-school counselor seriously injuring herself. Intrigue builds as Sammie’s apparent mysticism allows him to select a winning lottery ticket at a convenience store. Surprised and alarmed by his son, Simon takes Sammie to a physician but is met initially with skepticism. Yet when Sammie envisions that all is not well with his grandfather, whom he refers to as PeePaw, the clan sets off on a road trip posthaste. The result is a sensitively told story about family bonds and individual dreams. This is the third installment in the life of the fictional wannabe author. Semegran’s (The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood, 2012, etc.) fan base will recognize Simon’s rambling, often crude confessional inner monologue: “Sometimes, kids say the weirdest things at the weirdest times and there really is no rhyme or reason to why they say these things. They just do, and what they say is like an involuntary burp that escapes your mouth an hour after lunch or a silent yet stinky fart that slips out while you’re in an important meeting.” Some readers may quickly dismiss this approach as overly wordy and tiresome, yet Semegran is a persuasive writer, and in this particular story, Simon’s self-doubting verbosity becomes oddly endearing. Sammie is the true star, however—a sparklingly intuitive young character whose few words make the tale truly tick. Simple lines such as “Sorry I told you the truth, Daddy” are not only heart-melting, but also succeed in puncturing the hubris of adult life with the innocence of childhood. Illustrated throughout by Semegran, this book is the author’s best. In these pages, his steadfastly idiosyncratic style really begins to click.
An unconventional, beguiling, and endearing family tale.
Two short stories and a novella about youngsters growing up in Texas.
Author Semegran (The Discarded Feast, 2017, etc.) assembles three pieces of fiction; each chronicles the struggles of a boy in Texas—a second-grader, a teenager, and a recent college graduate. In the first story, “The Great and Powerful, Brave Raideen,” a quirky grade schooler, William, plays solitarily with his toys, which function as surrogate friends. He’s terrorized daily by Randy, a relentless bully, and conspires with his toys to fill his tormenter with fear, pilfering a gun from his parents’ room. Later, a repentant Randy apologizes and reveals that his father is his own oppressor. The boys make amends and become friends, but that doesn’t mean all ends well. In “Good Night, Jerk Face,” Sam obsessively pines for a 1980 Mazda RX7 and takes a job at a local Greek restaurant to save up for it. He makes deliveries in the owner’s truck, though he doesn’t have a driver’s license and doesn’t know how to drive. He starts to put his preoccupation into context, however, when he begins spending time with his crush. In the longest piece, The Discarded Feast, Seff, an aspiring writer, barely makes ends meet working at a restaurant. He starts stealing the food that’s headed for the dumpster but is eventually caught and fired. Along the way, though, he begins a potentially promising relationship with co-worker Laura Ann. Semegran artfully weaves together lighthearted comedy and emotional turbulence in each of the stories, and in the last one, Seff practically sustains his meager survival with jocose banter. The writing is sharp and unpretentiously thoughtful, and since each of the main characters finds solace in companionship, this is an affecting literary depiction of the comforting power of friendship. Each of the stories can be read on its own, but taken together, they make a coherent, thematic whole, skillfully produced.
An endearing collection that deftly captures the need for youthful fellowship.
An author bathing in the glory of publishing his debut novel heads to New York for his first book signing.
Simon Burchwood considers himself to be a writer at the pinnacle of his art. He believes that he has achieved recognition and fame, which, for him, are the most important accolades a man in his profession could think to achieve. Semegran’s (The Discarded Feast, 2017, etc.) novel opens with a boast: “I have become wildly more successful than I ever could have dreamed.” Simon is keen to share this assertion, and does so with everyone he meets. The truth is Simon appears to be a small-time author with a massively overinflated sense of self-importance who is on the cusp of publishing his first novel. The story charts his journey to New York, where he is to give a reading at a flagship bookstore, but first he will pay a visit to his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, in a bid to catch up with his childhood friend Jason. Seeing the streets where he grew up stirs up a cocktail of emotions, from mawkishness to disgust. Simon encounters his childhood sweetheart working in a strip joint, and realizes he still bears a resentment toward the kid who stole his prized Spider-Man comic. Yet he also knows that as a writer he is above small-town life, heading to New York with Jason, despite the fact he views him disparagingly as a “goddamn pig.” In Simon, the author has created a psychologically complex character that is difficult to like or tolerate. Written in the first person, Simon’s narrative is consistently abrasive and repetitive: “I gobbled up my second omelet as quickly as the first, and found myself licking my goddamn fingers and smacking my goddamn lips and scraping the edge of my goddamn plate with my fork like a goddamn heathen.” Semegran seems to channel Charles Bukowski’s muscular style but delivers a tired, ersatz version. Ironic or not, it becomes wearing after several pages. Nevertheless, the close-to-the-bone novel captures perfectly the intensely solipsistic nature of a certain type of author—one who arrogantly lauds the importance of his craft over others, yet ultimately favors public adoration over creative endeavor. But a clever and surprising twist fails to rescue what is often a tiresome read.
A flawed tale, despite some cutting observations of the writerly demeanor.