September 2010

Benjamin Jacob Hollars

fiction

Ronald Reagan, My Father by Brian Joseph Davis

Brian Joseph Davis's short story collection, Ronald Reagan, My Father, is built upon a singular idea -- transplantation, both literally and figuratively.

In "Ordinary People," after a convicted murderer is executed by the state, his brain is transplanted into the head of another -- Josh Mellon-David, who died of a heart attack the month prior. The results of the transplant are nothing short of ludicrous, and as we expect, the newly created monster runs amok before eventually being taken down by a "hail of bullets." The dead convict's daughter and Josh Mellon-David's wife are forced to decide who should retain custody of their monster, and as the narrator astutely notes, it was the first "death-penalty case that turned into a custody case that turned into a right-to-die case." While it's clear the story is written in homage to Shelley's Frankenstein, we've heard this one before and we already know the moral -- meddlesome humans are best keeping their brains to themselves.

In "Untitled Senator Joseph Lieberman Vanity Film Project," Davis employs transplantation in a more figurative sense, taking the senator from Connecticut and relocating him into a realm where we least expect him -- within a pitch for an action movie. The pitch itself is written in the style of a frenetic, overzealous teenager; plot twists and costume designs tossed in to bolster a hapless plot, just as the author intended. The story functions as an experiment with the unexpected, and a half a page deep we see Joseph Lieberman in a way we never have before -- dueling "with a blind man dressed in only a thong and guarded by a man with no legs riding a man with no arms." And that's just the entry point into the surreality.

While Davis seems to revel in his knack for this particular brand of absurdity, on occasion it feels as if the author is too busy laughing at his own jokes to realize that his audience remains silent. These stories are problematic, not due to any poor writing or shoddy craftsmanship, but rather, as a result of what often feels like half-baked tales built solely upon concepts. While we enjoy chuckling at the zany situations in which we find ourselves, his characters never receive the attention they deserve.

The exceptions are the collection's opening and closing stories, "The Unicorn, Part One" and "The Unicorn, Part Two." In "Part One," a print-on-demand publisher is held hostage by "a husband and wife team responsible for the 872-page Index of Equine Characters in Fantasy Fiction." The furious authors want answers as to why not a single person has purchased their tome, and while the publisher tries to calmly explain the nature of print-on-demand books, the husband interrupts, shouting, "Have you ever written something? Have you ever actually written something?" It is a wake-up call in which both readers and critics are reminded of the difficulty of creation. Much like the Index of Equine Characters in Fantasy Fiction, Davis's own creation remains imperfect, yet we can still wholly admire the attempt.

Ronald Reagan, My Father by Brian Joseph Davis
ECW Press
ISBN: 1550229176
160 Pages