Your Body Is Changing by Jack Pendarvis
At its best, Jack Pendarvis’s second short story collection Your Body Is Changing approaches the nuanced exploration of a lonely world of George Saunders’s hilarious and thoughtful Persuasion Nation. Instead of Saunders’s Dick-ian future filled with sold-out dullards striving for the best under the flashing billboards, Pendarvis uses an absurd present-day South as the backdrop for his stories, and from the first page he whips his characters into a nightmarish frenzy of circumstances that ultimately burn out before any of the scenarios can take root in your mind.
The book open with “Lumber Land,” which tells a scabby 50-year-old-loser named Dudley Durden that thinks he has just lucked into an exciting gig as a detective’s muscle. Besides his endless concern with the deteriorating state of his body, he has many ideas to occupy his time -- a book on “tragic suicides” of the unfamous, a punny hamburger shop concept, rehearsing what he would say on the Inside the Actor’s Studio, a dead wife to blame for all his missed chances, and finally another person to share them with. Dud’s less obviously named foil is Three, the grandson of (we assume) a proud and honest lumberman, a trust fund kid who loves pot, being rich and repeatedly explaining the difference between “fucking droll” and “fucking wry.” Trapped in an ill-considered stakeout, they gab past each other, both becoming increasingly bizarre and ridiculous as the night wears on. We are certainly meant to dislike Three and all of his rich idiot trappings, but the sympathy we are meant to feel for Durden never comes, despite his loneliness and indie quirk. Pendarvis seems to be striving for poignancy in this story by making Durden gross, yet thoughtful, punished for a perverted inventiveness but giving us clues about how he became so humorously pathetic (dead wife, failing body). This is not to say that “Lumber Land” isn’t funny. On a line-by-line basis Pendarvis makes his images come alive beautifully, but the barrage of set-ups in place of real character development was exhausting and sapped the story’s strength.
“Outsiders,” the second story in the collection, reintroduces Durden in another guise, the unsophisticated Southerner that wears her ignorance like a studded collar, not realizing that every chump got one from Spencer’s two Christmases ago. The story is set in a New York hotel bar where two unnamed men make stilted small talk until the smaller one’s friends from Alabama show up and talk their way into a tragedy. Instead of wild ideas and TMI, the characters here spout catchphrases like, “This girl will call you on your shit,” and “I hear something that is politically incorrect and I’m like ‘I’m there!’” all the while claiming that TV is beneath them. She tells it like it is! What happens to the characters in “Outsiders” is so nasty that you can feel Dahl-like glee in the prose as Pendarvis destroys them, all because these folks can’t seem to stop talking. This entire collection is populated with talkers and it is as if Pendarvis is so disgusted/fascinated with people suffering from verbal diarrhea that he can’t look away long enough to take a deep breath and plunge into character development.
The title story is the longest piece in the book and the best in the bunch, even though it never quite reaches that perfect funny/sad pitch it seems to be looking for. Your Body Is Changing’s protagonists are marked by inappropriate naiveté but in this case, Pendarvis puts it inside of a Scripture-quoting, fork-tongued 14-year-old weirdo with a good heart, where it works to pull the story along instead of just stoke scorn. Lines like “She let Duffy come over and pick up Henry whenever he wanted. Then she could concentrate on trying to get Uncle Lipton to poop right,” fall just short of heartbreaking. Pendarvis is really in control of his character’s voices in this one; Henry’s thoughts and speech mix of evangelical radio sermons and fanfic and Duffy, a failed intellectual, just streams bullshit, perfect, desperate bullshit as he fights back a stereotypical midlife crisis. Occasionally Pendarvis missteps with easy gags, such as when a cancer-ridden hayseed who lives with his cat under a mass of power lines answers a question about how he’s feeling with “tumory,” but mostly this can be ignored in light of his inventiveness.
The biggest problem with the collection is that the stories suffer from being together. The characters are very similar from story to story and so are the punch lines. The one unrelenting joke, because it is the “laughing-at” kind, wears out the funny fast. The shorter stories that come between the longer ones, though straying from the predictable pacing and traditional structure of the others, provide little relief from the formula because they read like half-sketched ideas better left in the margins.
Though Pendarvis is obviously a wildly creative writer, the anger that seeps through these stories about America’s losers poisons the fun. Hick-baiting distracts from his comment on the how convention cripples certain people and the ugliness of “normal” in a broken world.
Your Body Is Changing, Stories by Jack Pendarvis