I have always been faintly embarrassed by music journalism and one of the founding resolutions of this website was to avoid polluting the world with any more. Music journalism is an intrinsically frustrated genre, with the undemanding task of suggesting which record is the nicest never failing to generate a quite mind-boggling amount of inflated rhetoric and conceited posturing. This essentially betrays the music journalist’s desperation for substance. If the literary critic is a dashing fellow on a white horse, the music journalist is a pathetic figure who has tried to follow him by saddling and riding a dog. Yet if we are to review Rennie Sparks’ short story collection Evil (which was first published in 2000, although it was relaunched on the Kindle before Christmas), then we may have occasion to mention the fact that she is the brains behind the longstanding Gothic-Americana outfit The Handsome Family.
Whilst her husband Brett does the lion’s share of the singing, Rennie writes the lyrics, and the lyrics are surely the fundamental point of the Handsome Family. Although my knowledge of contemporary music is not what it was, I doubt that there is a smarter songwriter in America than Rennie Sparks. In their best songs – and there are at least two dozen of them – The Handsome Family capture the glamour and the power of the old American blues within ballads with the clean catchiness of good pop music. Perhaps it is expecting too much for Sparks to be as distinguished a writer of fiction as she is a lyricist, but Evil turns out to be a lively and at times quite distinctive volume of short stories.
The Handsome Family buzzes pleasantly in the background: “The Donkey Game” contains familiar references to Amelia Earhart, horseshoe crabs, and the HF’s famous insistence that “even butterflies are monsters when you look at them too closely”; whilst the bar in “The Dark Tunnel” is evidently a few doors down from the HF’s “Snow White Diner,” as the drinkers speculate on the same woman who drove her car into the Chicago River. These stories are all vodka and no coke, however, as Brett’s soothing, honey voice has floated away and we are left alone with Rennie’s biting nastiness.
The thirteen stories are all more or less set in Chicago, the city in which Sparks and her husband lived before they departed for New Mexico in 2001. Even in “Swimming Lessons,” which is set in 1973, this city is already in decline. Sparks’ Chicago is a glittering dystopia, and it is “impossible to find work downtown. The city is bankrupt,” and “the skyscrapers are all empty and the buildings are being torn down.” A sort of artificial prosperity remains and life is often as shabbily cluttered with goods as a bargain supermarket. The listless characters (even their unhappiness is superficial) are washed along within a flotsam of snacks and beers and highs. One is ultimately supposed to find their narratives – or the narratives concerning them – to be pretty, as they twinkle with quirky and striking detail, as if dripping with jewellery. “Web of Gold” is a brilliant pocket picaresque, with its heroine drifting:
from job to job – selling light bulbs over the telephone, offering samples of sausages in shopping malls, watering plants in hospital rooms… dropping staples out the window and feeding unopened mail through the paper shredder… stealing people’s lunches from the refrigerator in the breakroom or by flushing felt-tip pens down the toilet… stealing things, hauling them to another store in the same chain then bargaining my way into cash… pickpocketing men on escalators and reading ATM PIN numbers as they were typed in across a crowded room.
“Springtime” is like a bouncy television advert for a cleaning fluid which has mutated into a horror movie, with the housewife now dementedly and compulsively disinfecting her home. “The Donkey Game” could be a pilot for a sitcom, as it is set in an apartment and it features a cast of screwball neighbours and drinking buddies. Any “evil” is the cheerful, gaudy evil of Halloween decorations. Perhaps these characters are evil in the antique puritan sense that people are generally evil, but aside from an awful moment in “Dirtbags” when Rosalie wants to pawn “one of my father’s old leather-bound books” to buy booze, there are no real outrages here. A dull evil seems to have bled indiscriminately through the book, as if spilled on to it from a cup, and this evil is everywhere: in the characters’ dreary humanity, in their carelessness and their idle curiosity, and in the atmosphere which hangs over their city. Jesus’ forgiveness is extended to Rosalie at the end of her story, but we are surely as cynical about this as she is. Debbie and Rosalie have the same feminine spunk, and they would both thrive whether they had taken the side of good or evil.
There is murder in this book, but it is innocent and inconsequential, in the sense that a cat cannot be said to murder a bird.“Stuffed” is a thoroughly satisfying story in which a gun falls into the hands of some silly teenaged girls. The heroine of “Web of Gold” takes home a man “like you might take home a shell from the beach,” and, whilst this is clearly not Romeo and Juliet, after his death she realises that “a hole in the heart can be filled with blood” and she accordingly bumps off the local tramp. There is nothing particularly wicked to this – it just happens. The evil of the siblings in “Swimming Lessons” only confirms their innocence: the sister wants to marry her father and she submits to her brother’s golden showers, but these are fine children, and they are ultimately as blameless as Adam and Eve.
In “Cranes,” Peg eyes builders “putting up steel poles at the base of the old shedding trail, right where the skating pond used to be.” This is conceivably an optimistic image, considering that Peg still lives in the 1950s, and she should have burned her bra and abandoned her sinisterly paternalistic husband years ago. A witch without a cat, she broods over a waterlogged toy cat that she finds in the garbage, and she tries to defy her husband with the promise to “buy a little kitten from that pet store… just a little something to have around.” The sister in “Swimming Lessons” loses the companionship of her flattened cat Bandit, leading her to conclude that, “…things were moving forward in a line, straight ahead. No turning back.” Emily in “A Song about Sausage” tries to attract the cat of her unusually sensitive neighbour Mr. Bercow. Emily is going to die of cancer, and Bercow’s tomato-rearing skills cannot help much in this regard, but he promises that most rarest of things – genuine friendship – and perhaps he is a similar figure to Rosalie’s pal Snarl, who “wasn’t my boyfriend… just someone to have sex with and take drugs with and show off to when I shoplifted things.”
But marriage is a cage for lovers and most friends can only be relied upon to betray each other. In the latter respect, “Skanks” and “Dirtbags” are counterparts, respectively portraying an estrangement between friends from the perspectives of the deserted and the deserter. “Skanks” is a story of fathomless woe, and although she has been ostensibly designated a subject of satire, one can only feel sorry for the poor Janine, who explains that, “we just want to fall in love. That’s why we hang out at the mall.” In “The Dark Tunnel” we meet a man who is completely sick of his closest buddy, and this account of a world in which God is “out hanging himself after taking a good fucking look at what was going on down there,” is the only one of the stories to resort to male narration – presumably the female psyche cannot be trusted to safely contain such ranting and raving. Yet the narrator’s apparent deterioration actually leads to a greater sensitivity, for it is implied that he reaches such an emotional pitch that he ends up channelling the spirits of two children who were drowned in the nearby river. “We got water in our lungs,” he tells his surprised friend, and he later registers “something dark pushing its way up under my face.”
Sparks’ most successful stories report odd, inconsequential anecdotes, the sort of thing which would perhaps stick in the short term memory. “Fire” relates a husband’s unsuccessful attempt to seize a parking lot and his limp wife’s longing to help him. In “4 Piece Dinette Set $799.99,” a woman accidentally runs over a dog, and perhaps this finally reconciles her with a world in which boys smother parakeets, more adult boys such as her workmate Kenneth shoot bobcats for sport, and Jews are piled in mass graves with their emptied suitcases. But nothing seems to register within her consciousness. Where one would expect an epiphany, there is just a blank. If we have been foolish enough to take an interest in such characters, then there is a peal of diabolical laughter to the abrupt endings of such stories, just as we leave Rosalie “laughing so hard and long into the silence after the ringing finally stopped that I could feel snot coming out of my nose and tears pouring from my eyes.”