|Illustration by Stephan Britt|
There’s no standing aside and quietly observing the prose of Benjamin Weissman’s short fiction collection, Headless. It’s sweaty and lusty, spiked and coiling with slang, colloquialisms and a touch of jockish bravado. It doesn’t allow for wallflower readers who offer little more than pedigreed hmphs and nods. Headless demands readers who aren’t afraid to take a belly dive in the name of prose. Railroad pile-ups like “microscopic finny tidbits that make each slurp oceanic bliss” and “drunken staring matches, naked grab ass, someone’s face buried in the other person’s planetarium, mushy humping, out of sync” need to be lovingly midwived in order to draw their first juicy, profane breaths. For all the linguistic stickiness that gains its momentum in the stockpiling of the bizarre, Weissman makes some clear-eyed but tender observations about the lives of sad-sack creeps. One may have to clear away the stylish litter, but the lovely, oddball moments are there, sparkling in the morass.
In Headless’ stories — few of which spill over 10 pages; most are only four or five — it’s a loopy world, where Hitler gets teased on the bunny hill by Eva Braun, a man turns into a bear and an office of men suffer nightmares and low productivity due to rumors about a co-worker’s prowess. “Of Two Minds” is a balancing act between the narrations of two personalities in young schizophrenic Benjamin’s head. The story contains its own “key,” both adding to the narrative and explaining it, like a life-saving device that becomes something ordinary after it is used: “Paranoid: two voices in his head . . . One voice is distant, observational, policelike, as if it were narrating all physical and cognitive action. The other was intimate, subjective, which is another way of saying, I’m all about doubletalk. First he sees himself behaving in the present moment. Then I found myself blathering on about something I’d just done. Each sentence, a shadow of its former self, as they say.” And so it goes, the voices swapping lines like a ventriloquist and dummy, sometimes sharing a sentence with only a dash providing a nervy but sacrosanct border.
What could come off as a smarty-pants parlor trick is elevated by the sheer calisthenics, humor and pluckiness displayed. Cleverness counts, this author of Dear Dead Person knows, but giving the reader an opportunity to take a few gallops around the barn, the chance to exercise the brain by sorting out not just the voices, but the flinty slivers of meaning and advancement between “An idea bubble suggested I crawl beneath my sleeping quarters or flatten my body into the tiny room where ghosts have been known to lurk,” and “He considers making himself invisible” is substantial.
Headless cares for the marginalized. Not minorities or the economically disadvantaged, but the types of characters who so dominate the pop culture landscape in all their boob-tube blahness they are rarely given a moment’s thought in the flip side of literary fiction. We typically get the professor’s point of view and not the sexy student; the suffering wife instead of the flouncing starlet. Weissman takes the wooden delivery favored by low-production porn and the yammer of MTV reality shows in “Dear Apres Ski Forum” and delivers a carnal farce. “Ja, hello, good American. My English is better when I speak. Writing is hard, so bear with me (do not hesitate to hand me the Blue Ribbon when my skillful pun steals the show).”
Losers, too, are not overlooked; safely wrapped in humor and sympathy, they confess their shortcomings. In “The Fecality of It All,” the feeble warble of one man who, after cleaning the detritus from an overflowing toilet, begs “dear reader, drop that stone. Do not judge me, for I am an unfortunate person, a silly man.” Steve in “My Two Sons” is subjected to ridicule and torment at the hands of his spawn. “In the end,” the exasperated father admits, “the villain is always me . . . the tired blob who hasn’t slept soundly since they were born, the chump who drained his bank account on their behalf. Wait till we get to college, they shout into a megaphone, we’ll eviscerate your funds and encourage Mom to divorce you.”
It’s easy for Weissman’s stories to blow right by, devoid, as they are, of obvious “life-lessons” and worn nubs of poignant realization. Some hardly make an impression beyond simply being jousting and ribald. But if one looks past the joshing punchiness that can obfuscate the more delicate realizations, there are more pitiful, odd and awkward moments. Headless may not cater to the wallflower reader, but it lives fullest in some of its more wallflower moments.
In “Marnie,” the collection’s centerpiece, Weissman swoops down to a base tundra of human emotion and experience — and just as quickly retreats. We get a clear, simple glimpse of a world we know, and just as it takes shape, his imagination and funnel-cloud prose moves on. Sam’s skiing buddy takes an awful spill on the slopes and winds up in a coma. At the scene of the accident, he sees her wracked body naked as the paramedics cut through her jacket because “they needed to get to her heart.” Mournfully, gawkily he jokes, “Didn’t we all?” He duly notices that Marnie had “amazing tits, bone white, with nipples as pink and ripe as guava pulp.” Then he thinks, “It was the only time in my sex-crazed life that I stared at a naked girl and wanted to look away.”
The realization, and the story, is drunk with a kind of sadness that only seems to swell when infused with the freaky sensuality of the pervert, the compassion of a fellow skier, friend and weirdo, a certain go-for-broke humor. It’s the kind of moment you remember for its blundering absolutism — and the integrity of teasing out humorous pathos even in the most dire of situations.
HEADLESS | By Benjamin Weissman | Akashic/Little House on the Bowery | 157 pages, softcover | $13