Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A comedian and a small press short story writer walk into a bar. On Norm Macdonald's "Based on a True Story" and Shane Hinton's "Pinkies"

I never fail to be surprised at how I inadvertently read books together that are connected. Now I’ve read books that were linked on purpose, reading novels set in Kentucky before visiting Louisville, for example. Or deciding to read to novels about Vietnam for our in-store lit group, back to back. But so often the connections are completely unforeseen.

Take for example, two books I recently finished on a plane trip that couldn’t seem more different. The first was the recently released Norm Macdonald’s Based on a True Story: a Memoir. Just about every comedian has been offered a contract of late. Perhaps it’s because a number of them have been major bestsellers. Or perhaps it’s because they often already have a good amount of material – generating material is part of their DNA.

What I find particularly odd is that I thought there were many comics whose work I would read before Macdonald’s, but Based on a True Story was my prize for attending a rep night presentation*, and just after that, I happened to be chatting with one of our sales reps who told me how much they loved Macdonald. I was siren songed.

Macdonald’s sense of humor isn’t exactly the easy laugh. The story uses the major plot points of his life: growing up in Canada, doing standup, getting his break on Saturday Night Live, starring in a movie. But the story, as promises, veers off in unexpected directions – a promise to a dying child to accompany him on a week at Saturday Night Live becomes a quest to club a baby seal for example.

There’s a sense of the absurd that infuses the story. Did Macdonald really write an earlier work that was mistaken for cult leader Charles Manson? Did he have a stint in the slammer, and mistake his four-month term for forty years, leading to some very bad decision making on what to do to pass his time? Let’s just say either you love this or you just don’t get it. I have no idea which person you are, so the ball is in your court. But if nothing else, read his “Top 25 Weekend Update Jokes of All Time,” 24 of which are Macdonald’s, of course.

With some time left in the air, I picked up a half-read short story collection I first bought in April on my visit to Inkwood Books in Tampa. I have this unofficial rule that books I buy take higher reading priority. Being that I generally buy a book in most bookstores I visit, this can lead to problems with line control, so returning to Shane Hinton’s Pinkies was a way of easing the blocked intersection. Plus my rule of thumb is to not let half-finiished books sit around. "Give up? Give it away," that's my motto. If I keep it, it means I plan to return someday.

Hinton is a University of Tampa MFA grad and a protégé of Brock Clarke, whose influence you can see a bit in the stories. Clark is the author of The Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England, which I read, and The Happiest People in the World, which I did not. Pinkies was shortlisted for a 2016 CLMP Firecracker Award.

The collection is a combination of short stories and shorter flash fiction, with many of the works using the author as narrator approach. The title story features a couple expecting a multiple birth, and worried about python attacks, buy some mice for the traps. A somber “Four Funerals” mixes up the scenarios of a quartet of tragedies, while “All the Shane Hintons” features a reunion of a bunch of Shane Hintons, and their valiant attempt to avoid inviting Shane Hinton the rapist. Alas, Shane Hinton the drug dealer not only shows up, but crashes at Shane Hinton the author’s house.

The stories to me were paced to get more and more disturbing. An unlucky home across from a dead ending road is the site of accidents of accelerating carnage. A family farm near a strawberry patch has water so chemical-riddled that it’s toxic to the family. What’s the horrifying endpoint for distracted driving or poisonous pesticides? In a way, it’s classic horror without the monsters, or as The Twilight Zone would imply, we are the monsters.

After a while, the thing I noticed was that despite coming from very different places, Macdonald and Hinton were stalking out much of the same territory. Both used their own selves to drive the story. One claimed to be memoir but veered off into fiction while the other came from fiction, but wove in elements of memoir. In each case, it was hard to determine what if anything was true. And needless to say, both authors had a very similar sense of humor – absurd and unexpected, and even their transgressions were paced so that instead of being pummeled, the reader could be surprised.

In the end, I thought, “You guys should get a drink somewhere. But stay away from casinos – that Norm Macdonald is not to be trusted.”

*Or as the bloggers say, I was given an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

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