Book Review: Berzerkoids by M.P. Johnson

Daulton Dickey.

Berzerkoids are here! And this book is here to stay. If you love weird, intelligent, and entertaining short fiction, than this book should feature prominently on your bookshelf.

Loosely centered around the antics of toys–as a sort of anti-Toy Story–this collection also features several stories only tangentially connected to its titular themes. It’s thematic in the way Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is conceptual: some stories follow the 51ypuzfhl-_sy344_bo1204203200_overall theme and some could fit into any collection. But one thing is certain: every story in this collection is entertaining.

Say what you want about MP Johnson–and why the hell would you say anything negative, you prick?–but he has a wicked, pop-culture-infused, and, at times, minimalist imagination and sense of humor. His approach to the short form reminded me–as improbable as some readers might find this–of the best short works of Hemingway, as well as Joyce’s stories in Dubliners. Some are only a couple pages long; some build slowly, then hit you like a freight train; but none overstay their welcome, which is, to my mind, the strength of this collection.

The stories hit hard and fast. Realized worlds are developed within the matter of a few pages, characters are presented and developed well, situations go from weird to weirder, and the stories end, often without resolution, often without explanation–a sign of a confident writer.

Johnson doesn’t waste paragraphs or pages justifying the worlds he’s creating; instead, he drops you into them, creates weird or funny or intense situations, and leaves you wanting more. But there’s little confusion. You’re never dropped into a world in which you are confused or lost. You’re always viewing the worlds through the eyes of characters you care about, or through characters or high concepts so weird or funny or clever that you assent to take the trip, and oftentimes you can’t anticipate where you’re headed.

This is a great collection of stories by a strong and confident writer.

Book Review: The Green Kangaroos by Jessica McHugh

Daulton Dickey.
When you’re trapped in the cycle of addiction, where drugs transcend a good time and dominate your life, your existence, where every action you takes is predicated on scoring the next bag, the next hit, the next taste, everything in your life–indeed your life itself transforms, in a sense, into your periphery, there’s nothing you won’t do to score. In chasing his drug of choice, the fictional atlys, Perry Samson does the unthinkable: he sells chunks of his flesh. It’s a desperate move, one frowned on by even the lowliest of drug addicts. In the world of The Green Kangaroos by Jessica McHugh, those who sell their meat–to an upscale restaurant of all places–are viewed as the lowliest of lows, even by those in the grip of atlys addiction. Set in the waning years of the 21st century, The Green Kangaroos starts as a classic drug novel. But it quickly descends into a Philip K. Dicksian landscape of questionable or ambiguous reality.

On reading the opening chapter, one thing strikes you: the voice. This is a narrator so fully realized that you, at times, forget it’s a work of fiction. His attitude, his drive, his personal lexicon, his overwhelming desire to court, and succumb to, his addiction, feels plucked from the pages of a memoir. Nothing is off limits here; no taboos are too sacred to avoid. Drugs and violence, sex and desire–all consume the Perry, who alternates between these desires and his drive to score the next hit. It’s an unflinching look at the depths and depravities concomitant to drug addiction. 22043543

But this isn’t simply a Fear & Loathing-esque tale of excess; instead, it’s a morality play, an existential dirge, and, most importantly, a family drama. Perry’s relationship to his ex-wife and, crucially, his sister, grounds the novel in a pathos missing from some drug novels.

Then there are the dicksian elements. Without giving too much away, or spoiling several big reveals, I’ll just say that this is, in part a science fiction novel dealing with questions of reality and the ethics of advanced medical and scientific technology.

Equal parts drug novel, dystopian fiction, science fiction, and meditations on family and reality, The Green Kangaroos is a novel that grabs you from the opening paragraph and doesn’t let go until it races toward the climax. It’s a masterful novel that isn’t without it’s flaws: for me, the denouement was a little too protracted, and the epilogue inspired mixed feelings. On reading it, I felt misgivings, as if it was tacked on simply for the sake of creating a twist ending; but the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that it was a commentary on the nature of drug addiction and the personality types susceptible to slipping into that spiral.

Jessica McHugh is one of the more exciting writers working today. Her confidence, her voice, her ability to create compelling characters and worlds, and her embrace of the offensive, grotesque, and obscene makes her a rare writer these days, one willing to tackle any subject as honestly as possible.

Overall, it’s a fantastic novel.