Little Engines has entered its teenage years. Issue three is a morose, brooding collection, full of self-centered narrators and awkward human interaction. The layout, something I was quite fond of in the first issue, has not been sustained; just about every story in this collection needs to get out in the sun to lighten up its outlook. However, negative first impressions aside, this is a strong collection -- a bit hit or miss, but what works, works remarkably well.
Issue #3 (Summer 2002)
Opener "The Pockets", by Paul Maliszewski, is a slight meander about a man who knows all the best spots in the world to wet your beak and bribe the locals into knowing your name. I freely admit that I don't keep up with literature as much as I would like to, so perhaps this is a trend I'm missing, but this is the second story I've read in the past three months that concerns Americans traveling the world to pass out greenbacks. The New Yorker recently ran an excerpt from David Eggers's You Shall Know Our Velocity that takes the same tack. I'm not saying "The Pockets" is a rip-off -- far from it, as the tone of the two works is different ("The Pockets" is more cynical) and the drive behind the giving in each story is different -- but I am curious as to what inspired two different writers to tackle the same idea. There is not much to "The Pockets", save the little game it plays; the narrator pads people's pockets worldwide to get them to learn his name, but the reader never gets to know it.
Camden Joy's "Dum Dum Boys" is beautiful. The unnamed narrator is a bit of a selfish prick who is only slightly likable, but the story he tells is remarkably touching. It's a scattershot remembrance of a teenage friend who, as he makes the slide into a void of psychosis and addiction, remains the nicest person the narrator has ever known. In the notes I made while first reading Little Engines, I wrote about Joy's story, "Like the movie." I can't remember what movie I was referring to (Less Than Zero? -- Ed.), but I do know what I meant: Joy's story is comfortably familiar, and I mean that as a compliment. Cameron (the friend) and our narrator, both 1980s teens who can't stand school, the town they live in or adults, move together down a line of underage drinking, punk rock, garage bands and Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of A Clockwork Orange before girls and amphetamines split them apart. "Dum Dum Boys" is full of wonderful running lists of band names, albums, songs and books that layer the story in warm colors of feeling and a place in time. Joy writes in a style that plays as casual, but that offhandedness can't hide the loving detail he works into his lines, subtly illustrating the way Cameron can enchant the narrator for a lifetime. In doing so, Joy enchants the reader.
"Things We Knew When the House Caught Fire" serves as a nice counterpoint to "Dum Dum Boys", as it too looks back on childhood friends, but starkly, as the children in question aren't really friends. Populated by ten-year-olds already committed to suburbia, money, God and country, "Things We Knew When the House Caught Fire" tells what happens when someone upsets the apple cart and gets away with it. That someone is Allaray Bainer. The Bainers, a family of six from "one of the states in the middle", move to California to take over an inherited home. By day three it is the block versus the Bainers, except that someone forgets to tell the Bainers as they are too nice (or oblivious to the petty shit) to fight back -- yet they still win. The children of the neighborhood are brats and the Bainers come off a bit as "noble savages" of the suburbs, yet it still works. "Things We Knew When the House Caught Fire" is highly entertaining and is populated by fun, descriptive sentences like "If measured in terms of devotion and attention, the Bainers ranked among squatters, recluses and heroin junkies when it came to lawn maintenance," that sell the setting well.
Little Engines dips a bit in the middle. Adam Voith's "We All Fall Down, and the Old Men Are Lonely" is not a bad story, but as a reader I question whether the tone is right. An old man is supposed to be telling the story of a building demolition, but I kept asking myself if this was really the voice and tone of an old man. Perhaps this is my quirk, or perhaps Voith didn't set up the story properly. The collection of kids' letters and apologies, "Letters to a Teacher" are humorous and fun in a "kids say the darnedest things" way, but not worth extended comment.
Holly Day's "Jesus Christ Lord of Hosts Meets L.A. County" gets things going again in earnest. It's a sort of "what if" story in which Jesus, or perhaps someone who thinks he is Jesus, takes a short holiday, walking and hitchhiking through Los Angles, Venice and the California coast. Day crafts a piece that is a little expected and plain, but never entirely predictable. The gentle use of miracles by the gentleman from Bethlehem is a nice touch, due largely to Day's equally light way of describing them. The story is not so much about heavenly intervention as it is about the weariness of being in the world. If anything, skip to the end for Day's striking exit: Jesus entering a museum, full of Roman statues of gods and Old World paintings, one of which Jesus just might physically fade into -- until a guard shuffles him back outside.
"Of Course She Would Find a Lover" is a frustrating story. Author Gerald Beckman wrote the best story in Little Engines' first issue, so I had high hopes here. Beckman almost does it, too. A shorter story than the other pieces I've singled out, "Of Course She Would Find a Lover" is full of brief, clipped lines and neat flashbacks that drop the reader into the lives of a short-term couple in Ireland. Linda and Simon aren't headed for good things, but unfortunately, Beckman doesn't want to give any hints. The story ends abruptly, pulling out of the setting too fast; it's an introduction without a main event. I'm not saying that Beckman has to paint the entire picture, but he can at least finish sketching in the shadows. However, I'm still impressed with his use of the language and am willing to feel a little left on the hook for it.
I might be splitting hairs, but layout and presentation mean something to me. Layout should mean something to any reader, as it affects how you read. The layout work here seems rushed. I was impressed with the detail given to issue one, and thought that it went a long way in helping the book be a pleasure to read. With issue three, I was constantly distracted by layout errors and eccentricities (too many widows and orphans, the color of the page and rough line breaks, for the technically inclined). I might be a little sensitive to these matters, but I can't help but think that other readers will pick up on the problems, too; they just won't know why they are bothered. Hopefully, in issue four, Pew and the editors will turn back, stylistically.
No compilation like this can be one hundred percent solid every time. Little Engines is still a young publication. TNI Books is attracting impressive submissions, but weaker pieces continue to find their way into the mix. Perhaps in a few issues, when all of its growing pains are completely worked out, Little Engines will be truly remarkable.
-- Jason Broccardo