December 2005

Joanna Petrone

fiction

The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure: Curious Stories by Jack Pendarvis

The prodigious cast of characters in the title story of Jack Pendarvis’s debut collection The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure includes, among others, a lesbian sister-in-law; a young, “mind-blowing” movie critic known for “cheekily controversial replies” to readers’ letters; an insufferable creative writing teacher; an antagonistic father-in-law; a miser’s ghost; a sociopathic police officer; and a senile old man with predilections for clam chowder and spanking. The story is dense with absurdities. The highly concentrated humor has potential to be hilarious and intoxicating, but it has potential to be exhausting and grating as well. Pendarvis’s collection of “curious stories” manages, somewhat frustratingly, to be both.

“The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure” is, for all the hoi polloi Pendarvis manages to cram in to, about only one man: our narrator, Willie Dobbs. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to state the entire book is about this man, or at least, this kind of man. Pendarvis’s protagonists tend to be, like Willie, unemployed, alcoholic, self-aggrandizing nut jobs. Willie cuts a contemporary archetype for the hapless, quixotic loser -- a surprisingly endearing figure.

An accusation by his father-in-law that Willie’s a shiftless, good-for-nothing layabout has had the unintended effect of stirring up in Willie the recognition of a calling. When Willie introduces himself, he is wearing the hat of historian and would-be bestselling author of The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure. The story begins as a local history of South Preston before digressing to Willie’s real subject: himself.

Willie alternates between relating the increasingly outlandish developments in his life and musing on history. As his misadventures become more dangerous and his grip on reality continues to loosen, Willie’s delusions of grandeur inflate his project from a history of South Preston to the history of the entire United States to a life-affirming memoir in the vein of Tuesdays with Morrie to an entirely “new form of history.” In the car ride home after a night of questioning by a Good Cop and a Bad Cop who suspect Willie of brutally murdering a midget security guard, Willie takes time to reflect on his lot:

...I did not rise to the bait of my father-in-law’s sneering inquisition, choosing instead to look at the historical scenery whizzing by in an ecstasy of meaningfulness.

Was this not the historian’s lot? To ride along, with someone else driving far too quickly, trying to make sense of this or that vague blur -- now here, now vanished? Was my father-in-law nothing more than a fleshy symbol of grim, skeleton-faced, cadaver-devouring Time itself? I congratulated myself on the aptness of my metaphor.

The voice is part-Ignatious Riley, part-Jack Handy -- a pompous idiot that is easy to laugh at. Willie Dobbs, along with Pendarvis’s protagonists in other stories, shares a more than passing resemblance to the narrator of Jonathon Ames’s Wake Up, Sir. Ames and Pendarvis share a tongue-in-cheek, at times self-flagellating, comic sensibility and the ability to make self-absorption mixed with alcoholism seem quite the winning combination. Pendarvis’s characters, however, are not so fully developed as Ames’s. The narrator of Wake Up, Sir is bombastic and over-the-top but is shaded by loneliness and pathos that make him familiar and compelling. There are moments in “The Mysterious Secret” in which one catches a glimmer of something more -- the few exchanges between Willie and his wife, for instance, suggest to the reader how Willie might be understood from a different perspective -- but the promise is left largely unfulfilled; Willie fails to grow or change in any significant way. Pendarvis is clearly skilled as humorist: the man can write funny. But to sustain a reader’s interest for ninety pages, something more than just funny is needed.

Pendarvis’s strongest two pieces -- "The Pipe" and "The Golden Pineapples" -- are, incidentally, the only two narratives written in the third-person. Perhaps because of this, perhaps not, the pace in both stories is less frantic, and, though both are humorous, they are relieved of certain nervousness and anxiety to entertain that mark "The Mysterious Secret" and a few others of Pendarvis’s pieces. "The Golden Pineapples" paints a portrait of an unemployed husband and father (Mitch) whose increasingly delusional paranoia leads him to rake the yard at night and estrange his family. Though the story is told from Mitch’s perspective, the frame is wide enough to include other characters that are neither stuntmen nor hallucinations. The glances into his family life make the story richer and make Mitch’s deterioration more poignant.

In "The Pipe," a security guard and an EMS technician begin to talk to their unresponsive charge -- an air pipe leading to a D.J. buried in the ground. The absurd elements in "The Pipe" evoke loneliness, and the intricacy of tone that results calls to mind certain stories by Aimee Bender. Rather than playing every trick for laughs, Pendarvis allows his characters to steep in their strangeness; the effect is more powerful and haunting.

One more thing to take note of: when reading the subtitle, stress the “curious” half of “curious stories” and adjust your expectations accordingly. The shorter pieces, while entertaining, are not short stories by most definitions. "Our Spring Catalog" is a mock catalog of a literary press’ releases, hyperbolic blurbs that poke fun at the book world. Similarly, "About the Contributors" parodies the author biographies found in the end pages of a literary journal. Funny and clever, yes; stories, no. Pendarvis’s in-humor would be well placed on the Shouts & Murmurs page of the New Yorker, but if you open a book expecting stories, you will be disappointed. Pendarvis’s collection is amusing, if uneven and underdeveloped in places, and there are glimmers that suggest the potential for more substantial works to come.

The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure: Curious Stories by Jack Pendarvis
MacAdam/Cage
ISBN: 15596921285
198 pages