I only have a limited amount of time to write book reviews, but I do enjoy having the chance to tell people what I think about a good book. My reviews are always my opinion, but I still think it is important to share so that conversation regarding books I think need attention actually happens.
Further, I do like to focus some of that review time on chapbooks. I’ve found some incredible writing in chapbooks, but it seems that some review venues are more resistant to these shorter books. That impression makes me feel it all the more important to talk about a chapbook I find particularly good if for no other reason than the higher difficulty in getting deserved air time for that literary conversation. Don’t Tease the Elephants by Jen Knox is exactly the kind of chapbook that I want to make sure people are talking about.
I’ve always held the view that compelling fiction brings readers into critical moments in the lives of characters, pivot points of significance. The balance of a life doesn’t always have to change, but it’s where meaning can be found. After reading the five stories in Don’t Tease the Elephants, it is clear that Knox knows this better than I know it myself.
Consider the story “Nothing.” The narrator is having a drink with a man everyone in town knows named Rattle. Rattle is a wanderer, moved around doing all sorts of different kind of things in life. Despite the lack of any real accumulation in Rattle’s life, the narrator has a fascination with him, a kind of hero worship in a way. It appeals to the narrator from the mediocrity in his own life and his inability to make of it what he wants, presuming he could figure out what that was:
Rattle had shoulder-length brown hair and a goatee dusted gray. He’d been doing odd construction jobs outside of town, he said, and it was paying the bills. He had some expensive work to get done on his bike, but he knew a guy. His small talk sounded like a movie script. I hung on every word. I looked to his hands, meaty and red but not calloused, and I nodded along. Here I was buying Scotch for the man the whole of our little Midwestern town talked about over squarish bottles of Fiji.
But this isn’t all the moment is. Rattle tells the narrator about a party the bar held for him a little ways back, turning out that he got way too drunk and ended up sleeping with an underage girl. The moment of significance comes in the identity of the underage girl:
“What happened, you got a case?” I asked. “You can’t trust those girls. They lie about their ages.”
“Look, man, just know I’m sorry,” he said. He pushed a fifty across the bar toward Ernie and gave me a look when I tried to protest. “I’ll be around when you want to kick my ass. I don’t think you can, but I owe you enough to let you try.”
I didn’t find out about my daughter’s pregnancy until a week later, when I found her crying in her room because she was afraid.
What will the narrator do with this? He isn’t the kind of man who could try to fix this by fighting Rattle. Knox gives us this moment and both we and the narrator get to find out what he is able to do in this pivotal situation in his life.
Normally I like to analyze the text of a book more when I review, but given that Don’t Tease the Elephants is a chapbook I don’t want to give away too much. I think it is clear from the above examples that every moment in these stories is electrified with importance, subtly presented as it is. The language is finely honed as well, clean and hard, capable of being both harsh and compassionate. In short, this is writing that moves the reader inside.
Teasing elephants might not be a good idea, but reading Don’t Tease the Elephants certainly is.