by Julie Innis
188 pages – Foxhead Books, 2012
Reviewed by JP Reese
Tell All the Truth, but Tell It Slant: A Review of Julie Innis' Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture, by JP Reese
A consummate storyteller writes the stories that make up Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture. Julie Innis' first person narrators, whether they are gardener's helpers, pregnant wives, a devil in an impossible love affair, or the kidnap victim of a serial killer, all speak from a dark and sometimes funny reality that incorporates first world problems. Middle class angst has never been tackled exactly like this nor have I read a set of stories more slyly insightful.
Innis' well-wrought characters utter falsehoods regularly, most are deeply unreliable, some not of this world, but beneath their bravado, tiny kernels of truth lead the reader to ponder the larger issues of the human condition. For a collection seemingly drenched in irony, many of these stories have as their driving force the very human desire for love in all its wretched beauty. Although this is her first book, Innis' debut collection of short stories Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture is the work of a seasoned writer who is comfortable in her own style and voice. The writing is often cynical, frequently ironic, but also hilarious, wise, and true.
The first story in the collection is a nightmare of implied metaphor depicting with extravagant cynicism how wrong a relationship can truly go. "My First Serial Killer," is told from the point of view of a young woman being held captive in a basement by a rather hapless wannabe serial killer whose dull knife blade can only "raise faint marks against [her] skin the way a pencil eraser might--long, pink, but hardly fatal" (11). He burns her with cigarettes, keeps her tied up in a basement, but like many relationships between strangers that begin with a bang, too soon, his heart isn't really in it.
The victim is disappointed in her potential murderer's lackadaisical style, and he becomes more and more disenchanted with the whole process, especially with her. Like many normal relationships that begin over a drink or two in a bar, (albeit few nights end with the woman being knocked over the head with a beer bottle, tied up, and tossed into a basement), the killer/boyfriend begins to lose interest. The victim tells us she has "...seen these signs before, the glazed eyes, the half-hearted laughter at [her] jokes, the monosyllabic responses when [she tries] to engage him in conversation" (17), but she does try to engage him, like any lover who senses she is about to be dumped and doesn't want to be, by catering to what she thinks are his deepest desires: 'You know, if you stub out the cigarette between my toes, now that would really hurt,'" and he replies "'Sure, maybe later'" (17). He may as well yawn.
He "...starts bringing girls home at night" (17) whose laughter she can hear filtering through the basement floor, the tap of their high heels an insult to her as she devises ways to regain his flagging attention. This is not your average serial killer nor does the victim behave in expected fashion. This is a love story gone awry in too many ways to list. Its underlying metaphor gives the story a second level of meaning about relationships and their inevitable crumbling when one person is more invested than the other.
The ironic yuppie tale "Habitat for Humility" explores cultural disconnects. A hapless white couple, baby on the way, buys a place in a black Brooklyn neighborhood in transition, and they are determined to gentrify it. During the process, they are so solipsistic in their goal that they manage to antagonize all of their new neighbors. Their new house faces backward, its backyard mooning the rest of the street--a great symbol for the downward spiral of this couple's hopes to fit into a neighborhood that isn't interested in them and against whom they eventually turn their backs, literally fencing themselves into a cage of their own making.
The clash of cultures creating a gulf too wide to breach is at times amusing and at others it induces a cringe. The wife tries to shield her husband from the brunt of the neighborhoods' disgust with their yuppie possessions and insensitive choices. After all, his manhood is at stake! The husband keeps buying conspicuously middle class objects to place in his backyard even though their escalating entrenchment and the neighbors' reactions makes it clear that they have made a grave mistake in purchasing a place and erecting a giant, expensive fence around what was once a gathering place for friends in a neighborhood already worried about its own survival and ready to fight for it.
The rebellion of the neighborhood against the couple's thoughtless behavior is embodied in a black man and his two children. The father, when he and his children first set eyes on the couple grilling steaks in their newly enclosed backyard, tells his little boy and girl, "Get a good look at the white people in their natural habitat, kids" (29), implying that these interlopers are animals caged in a zoo. The white couple's isolated yuppie heaven, complete with Tiki Bar, is surrounded by the new 12-foot wrought iron fence topped with spikes intended to keep the couple's fear at bay. What their insensitive choices finally lead to is a life devoid of any vibrancy and pleasure they might have found in treating their neighbors like people rather than the other who must be feared.
"The Next Man," teases its readers with magical realism and involves the tribulations of a woman trying to adapt to life in a unique relationship. The story makes clear that appearances aside, the idea of what constitutes perfection in a relationship is not necessarily the same for everyone. A fang Evelyn Abingdon finds on the sidewalk turns into an almost perfect man lying in her bed the morning after she has done the little girl/tooth fairy pillow tuck. The breathless excitement of a nascent relationship follows as Evelyn finds herself pleased with his "...firm hands...fine wrists, and ah those lips, that clean and shiny hair!" (123).
At first, the man seems to have all the superficial qualities Evelyn has ever fantasized a mate would possess. Soon enough, the man begins to reorder Evelyn's life, folding the sheet wrong, feeding her tofu instead of red meat, and talking baby talk to her. "Sweep tight," he says as, antagonized by his controlling behavior, Evelyn has made her bed on the couch. One bone takes the place of another as Evelyn trades in her pristine model for one, she imagines, will be a bit more flawed and thus easier for her to handle. She finds a short rib bone lying on the sidewalk and brings it home to place, once again, beneath her pillow. The story suggests that imperfect men, especially men who live only in one's imagination, are always better than the real thing, and if someone begins to irritate, there's always another bone lying on the street waiting for its chance beneath the pillow.
In one of the most cleverly wrought stories in the collection, "The Natural Order of Things," the devil is the empathetic, bungling, and sympathetic lover of a Persephone-like intractable girl who refuses to leave hell even though the world is slowly freezing above their heads and only her return can save it. Innis imagines a gentle and sweet story of love gone wrong that is also a story in which the devil saves the world. The girl and the devil are so fully realized that they could walk off the page and into the room. The girl's arguments against going back to the real world conjure her lived experience involving a weak father, a controlling mother, chaos, weapons, corruption, famine, disease. "The Natural Order of Things" asks the reader, finally, to consider what, exactly, is hell? Love, it appears, can make even the ultimate hell a better place to be than the hell that is life on earth. Who knew the devil could be so sensitive and charming?
Julie Innis is a fine writer, and her stories capture the human psyche in all its fragility, generosity, and absurdity. This debut collection is masterful in its ability to delve into the cracks and crevices where we hide our darkest desires even as we paint and patch an outward mask that suggests to the world stability and control. Innis' characters are flawed creatures, beautifully constructed. Her energized narratives move swiftly; her plots are just twisty enough to surprise and delight even the most jaded reader, and the depth and breadth of these stories is astonishing in a debut collection. Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture is a must read for anyone who appreciates the truth, told slant.
JP Reese has poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, book reviews, and writer interviews published or forthcoming in many online and print journals such as Metazen, Blue Fifth Review, A Baker's Dozen: Thirteen Extraordinary Things, and The Pinch. Reese is an Associate Poetry Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and an editor for scissors & spackle: www.scissorsandspackle.com. Naked Mannekin Press published Reese's first poetry chapbook Final Notes in 2012, and her second chap, Dead Letters, is scheduled for publication by Cervena Barva Press in 2013. Her published work can be read at Entropy: A Measure of Uncertainty: jpreesetoo.wordpress.com.