Rutkowski’s new flash-fiction compendium covers the gamut of hipster angst.
These 86 stories, most no longer than a page, resemble prose poems in that they highlight a single motif. Plot and storytelling play second fiddle to an Oulipo-esque obsession with language and wordplay. Puns abound, testing the average Anglophone’s tolerance for such contrivances: “When I hear ‘ice pack,’ I reach for an ice pick” (“Freon Drunk”); “Greekness, not Geekiness” (“If I Were He”); a linkage of “tantric” and “tantrum” (“At the Ayurvedic Center”). The proliferation of M’s in “McDonald’s Mania” goads McDonald’s own alliterative copy to hilarious extremes. Alliteration renders scatology sophisticated in “Caught in the Worst Way.” With additional insights bespeaking, perhaps, the perspective of maturity, Rutkowski reiterates themes and episodes covered in his earlier work (Haywire, 2010, etc.). These include tremulous childhood, subpar education, soul-sucking employment, the artist on the margins, the Asian-American experience, urban life, and the transgressive joys of tobacco. Stories often involve a turn that morphs the mundane into incipient madness, as in the OCD manifesto “Departure Checklist.” The unnamed first-person narrator common to all these short-shorts evinces alienation as he observes how his childhood pets’ feeding habits very closely resemble his own (“Pet-Food Dishes”), remarks on the vagaries of outdoor plumbing (“Our Basic Outhouse”), and imagines the palate of a dung beetle (“This Is the Shit”). Underwater real estate ownership is deplored in “Our Place.” In “Fuck the Dumb,” Rutkowski indulges in one of his favorite pursuits: disparaging literary conferences. A few stories, though, read like writing exercises picked up at those same conferences: “In College” begins every sentence with “I liked” or “I didn’t like.” In “UFOs,” each paragraph leads off with some variation of “The saucer man led us all away,” a device evoking a sestina or villanelle. As with a poetry collection, the stories here give up their full riches only on repeated reading.
Insouciant, twee, and aphoristic, Rutkowski’s voice handily skewers stupidity.