Nate Liederbach demotes plot and Aristotelian mechanics, replacing them with the acrobatics of a beer-loud voice that happens to belong to the most interesting talker in the bar.
Beasts You’ll Never See by Nate Liederbach, Noemi Press, 178 pages, $15.
By Vincent Czyz
Jean Toomer’s Cane, published in 1923, is a stunning, genre-bending collection that includes drama and poetry but consists primarily of fiction, though not of the conventional sort. The lyricism, twilit moodiness, and haunting imagery of Toomer’s voice carries these narratives, which bounce between rural Georgia and Jazz Age New York City. About three decades later, William Goyen, a native of East Texas, began publishing short stories that also abandoned the tropes blueprinted by O. Henry and perhaps were most successfully realized by Raymond Carver. Poetic turns of phrase, vernacular that would now be familiar to fans of Cormac McCarthy, and the harsh beauty of desolate settings replace the staple literary devices of plot and resolution. Toomer and Goyen were followed by John Edgar Wideman, whose 1993 fiction collection All Stories Are True relied even more heavily on the intensity of the language itself, which is often stripped even of punctuation, and doesn’t flow so much as roil and froth past as it sweeps characters and events with it.
Nate Liederbach’s Beasts You’ll Never See, winner of the 2014 Noemi Press Fiction Award, comes out of this literary countermovement (I’ve chosen three names, but there are many more that could be pulled out of that hat). As in the case of his predecessors, Liederbach demotes plot and Aristotelian mechanics, replacing them with the acrobatics of a beer-loud voice that happens to belong to the most interesting talker in the bar, a guy who can go all night without stretching his mouth with a yawn or resorting to a commonplace phrase or description. An old tv is described as “a knob-tube fiasco, circa ’83”; a smart phone is “the size and neon flare of some gut-rot fucking Pop tart”; workers “spill from their centers of operation as mice from gassed tunnels.” Leiderbach takes great care, down to calibrating the choice of a single word in a given sentence, In “Daddy Bird,” for example, the main character puts his arm around his anorexic sister and encounters her “ball-peen shoulder.” There are a lot of ways to describe a bony joint, but this has to be among the most inventive. Similarly, there are a couple dozen verbal approaches to a red face, but “smack-blushed” must be among the more striking descriptions.
The stories in the collection deal with emotional or existential distress, with characters in crisis, such as the anorexic woman and her troubled brother in “Daddy Bird.” In “The Distance” (as in “going the distance” in a boxing match, which is the round-by-round conceit structuring the tale) a divorced father who sees his teenage daughter on weekends struggles to balance his desire to be liberal and open-minded with his demand for filial obedience. A professor in “The Roads Amputated the Legs,” is left addled by a brain tumor, but he refuses to give up teaching. His former protégé, himself a professor, tries to save the dying man the embarrassment he’s putting himself through, but something cold surfaces in the younger man, raising questions about his true motives. “Dick the Fourth,” perhaps my favorite in the collection, takes place on the periphery of tragedy. Olson is awakened by the late-night call we all dread: his sister, already at the hospital, advises him that their father is near death. Olson (Dick Olson IV, hence the title), speeds through the night in his battered pick-up truck, but he doesn’t make it in time to hear his father’s last words or give him a final hug. Instead, Olson winds up in the hospital parking lot reliving — in a turn toward the surreal — a couple of scenes from high school with an acquaintance he hasn’t seen for decades.
One thing that sets Liederbach apart from many of the writers who take this fictive approach is the humor, often dark, permeating every story. No narrator misses his cue for a joke or a sardonic remark. Some of the amusement is likely there for its entertainment value, but there also seems to be the suggestion that comedy is the underside of tragedy and that the two are never as far apart as we think.
Admittedly, there are times when the levity seems a bit like a requirement that has to be met before the narrative can proceed, and it could be argued that the protagonists all seem to have the same sense of humor — as though the stories were all happening to the same person — but these are minor objections. A larger issue for me is that some of the endings feel a little like wires that Liederbach has not quite connected. While there’s no need for the last sentence to wrap things up in a bow — particularly in fiction that has little use for convention — a certain conclusive resonance seems at times to be missing.
Overall, however, Beasts You’ll Never See is a strong performance that elicits shrieks of hilarity even while skirting a precipice overlooking despair. Unlike more classically trained authors, Liederbach doesn’t give us stories about life so much as an experience of life. We are tour-guided among the fantastic shapes that form his characters’ inner landscapes, and now and again we get a glimpse of that place where the mind meets the horizon.
Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.