what if i got down on my knees?
Whistling Shade Press
204 pages (paperback)
Review by William Grabowski [for The Toronto Review of Books]
After assessing a few of Tony Rauch’s previous works, such as i’m right here (Spout Press, 1998), laredo, and eyeballs growing all over me . . . again (Eraserhead Press, 2008 and 2010), the 21 collected stories—in four sections—of what if i got down on my knees?, subtitled a series of romantic misadventures and entanglements, seem an essential culling of work originally published in—among others—journals Revolver, Daily Love, Split Quarterly, New Dead Families, and Spout Press’s Blink Again anthology. The inevitable next step in Rauch’s authorial evolution.
The comparisons here and there to an unlikely fusion of William Burroughs and Garrison Keillor strike me as oddly apt—I get it. But Rauch’s mix of the irreal/surreal, iron-free deadpan, chronic isolation and its effects (suggestibility, fugue-like states, paranoia and, of course, free-floating anxiety) with mundane quotidian concerns resonate too with—I would argue—Rick Moody, Sam Shepard, and even the unmitigated stillness and naturalism of Jim Jarmusch’s very early films. But this is simply a way of describing a writer capable of sensibilities both playful and lacerating, driven by deeper personal currents than those found in mass-market fiction.
In “my father’s secret,” a boy discovers the reason behind his father’s frequent absences, and after a while the two seem to share a tacit acknowledgment—including the possibility that the boy’s mother is aware of the bizarre situation. An unsettling exploration of the consequences of unpuzzling (even if accidentally) parental secrets, with an ending that will implode your heart.
“silhouette (several vignettes with sudden endings)” offers, among other existential slices, “lovers at the observatory”: “…we’d drink our precious few stolen beers and watch the troubled people escape from the big clean white halfway houses across the street as big clean white clouds forced themselves by, and big clean white attendants chased after. and we would stop our games and sit in the dirt and grass and sip our beers that unemployed older brothers who hung out at the gas station provided and we would watch the troubled break free, as large clouds forced themselves into our blue and green world. as i sat in the sand i wondered if years later i would be gazing out one of those windows, through the trees and across the street at the children standing around, sitting on the bench, waiting for their turn.”
In “the knockout,” Rauch gives us a jagged (and honest) perspective on how to impress a girl in ten seconds or less: “He wanders down the steps to find a seat, his forest of a head running down the river of her arm to catch the sky of her eyes and turns after wading in those deep eyes. She releases him and looks softly back up to me…. She gives this world meaning in truth and beauty. He’s probably an architect, a deconstructivist, a dadaist, a mathematician/test pilot, specializing in number theory and higher-order thinking, some swashbuckling pirate who has seen everything there is to see, been everywhere twice, maybe a member of some tactical SWAT team on the side—just for something to do.
“I’d like to pay someone to make him look like a wussy.”
“hooray for all the children” stands out for its Absurdist (maybe not) working-out of a conceit with which many of us can probably relate: what becomes of the marginal, often bullied, kids we went to school with? What form (assuming they haven’t progressed beyond the “revenge” phase) might their pay-back take given the resources available to them as adults?
The answer, like much in this collection, is only as absurd as our dreams, terrors, and desperate hope of keeping it together in a fragmenting image-obsessed world whose “meaning” can only be found by turning inward.