Gapinski’s (Messiah Tortoise, 2018) surrealist novella doles out dark comedy, visceral detail, and deft commentary in equal measure.
Our main character’s bus commute takes her between work and a home life she’d rather not discuss, accompanied by the same sad, stained, frequently off-putting fellow passengers. When the bus’s marquee reads “Out of Service,” she finds herself taken not to her menial job behind a deli butcher’s counter but a barren shantytown in a desert wilderness. Despite seemingly hopeless circumstances, she remains determined to leave this place even as her butchery skills earn her a certain cachet in a town that survives on rat meat, beetles, and the dead. Her refusal to join one of the town’s cultlike factions makes her an object of fascination. In a world where the bus driver is armed and dangerous and only drops off new arrivals or drives pickups in a circle, there’s something heroic in her persistence as well as that of the townsfolk. Their lives are ugly, crude, and filthy, but they’ve still carved a society out of the will to survive and from every scrap that comes in on the bus, like using makeup as an accelerant for a fire barrel. Gapinski’s matter-of-fact prose works perfectly here, the straight-faced descriptions of death and cannibalism lending a comic tinge to the macabre proceedings: “Bus-Driver opens the door and pushes out the body. It’s got a terrible smell, like skunk and shit mixed with a hint of blood.” The story only heightens this dissonance with naturalistic dialogue, forcing readers to question what “normal” is when credit cards and other modern symbols of power and prosperity lose their meaning. Finally, for all the gore and horror, this isn’t The Road or Mad Max or any such story of the barbaric. The threatening aspects of the denizens of Out of Service seemingly stem from their extreme poverty and the narrator’s refusal to participate in their social order, not from any malice. Thus the novella poses questions of why these people have been thrust into these hellish circumstances, how they can escape them, and ultimately how different their lives really are from our own.
Brilliant and brutal; a thrilling story surrounding complex, nuanced considerations of nihilism, optimism, and our own existential reality.