It is clear why this collection of fiction is titled This Is Where It Gets Interesting. Most of the entries (but not all) start with a premise that is unusual or out of the ordinary, a step or two away from everyday life and routine:
- “Mercurochrome:” Guardians of the site of repeated automobile crashes
- “Hero:” A camper taken hostage by a psychopath
- “Stormbringer:” A Kafka takeoff in which the main character wakes to find himself turned into a Norse warrior (which apparently is intended to be funny but really isn’t)
Other entries are mundane and predictable. There is nothing interesting about:
- “One Shot:” a road trip to Minneapolis
- “Things to Do:” a corporate retreat
- “All This and More:” a young prodigy who outstrips her parents and then dies
The entries are not stories; they’re vignettes. These little slices of life rest almost entirely on an unusual situation. Character development is lacking; the characters are more like cardboard sketches than real people. There is no or minimal plot.
These vignettes take place mostly in and around Chicago, but the author fails to convey a sense of the place. The reader gets no sense of what Chicago is about in all its grittiness, allure, energy, culture, corruption, and sadness. John Matthews is no Nelson Algren taking you down to D&D (Damen&Division and drunk&disorderly); this is no City on the Make.
At first, the entries are mildly amusing, but that soon wears off. They are certainly not “insightful, twisted and hilarious” as the cover claims. “Help Wanted,” which comes close to having a plot and interesting but undeveloped characters, is about an air traffic controller suffering PTSD after a crash that killed many people. The “insight” is to move on, put it behind you: “They’re dead. You’re alive. So live .… We can’t change what’s done.” The local parish priest could provide an equally trite observation. “The Black Tornado” is just as trite: A father asks forgiveness for being a lousy father. A tornado as metaphor for the character’s inner turmoil is tired. “Johnny Heart Attack” is not a man experiencing death. Instead (spoiler alert), our hero is having a bad dream that makes him decide to stop smoking. That’s not an O. Henry twist, it’s bland. “The Wall” seemed to have potential as political commentary, but it soon fizzled out.
This Is Where It Gets Interesting is a self-published book. Self-published books are self-published for a reason: Standard publishers turn them down because they aren’t very good. Did the author spend too much time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
March 2014, Six Slug Books
$12.99, paperback, 204 pages
—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs