The Epic Poetry of B-Movies: A Review of Aaron Poochigian’s Mr. Either/Or

Everyone loves a kitschy B-movie. We love to watch them, pick on them, dress up as their characters. B-movies have made careers for the creators of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and serve as the aesthetic foundation for A-TV shows like Stranger Things. And a B-movie is exactly what Aaron Poochigian’s newly released Mr. Either/Or both is and is not. Of course, it is not a film – it is in fact a novel in verse – but its plot runs like that of a B-Movie’s, yet told in language that one might find in Milton or Beowulf. It is an engaging, smart, and superbly fun work that one can read over and over again and still come away with something new every time.

Meet you. You are the hero of Mr. Either/Or, a story told in second person, which creates the feel of a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Poochigian’s protagonist – you – totters between the highly cerebral super-spy and the base bro with a limited view on how other humans function. At the start of the novel, you are ready to give up your badge and the agency, for which you work, in order to chase tail and lead the chill life of a college freshman in the halls of New York University. But your boss calls you back for one more mission, and you feel compelled – I mean, come on, Boss is like a father to you.

And thus, you’re propelled into the magical chase that Mr. Either/Or so gleefully runs. From the first to the third page of the novel, you’re sprung from the folklore of ancient China to the bright, sunny ambiance of Washington Square in the fall. The plot turns over itself again and again, adding elements of Mafioso, the science fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, all told in the tongue of an Old English text. There’s a love interest, a sewer cult, glamorous parties and shootouts in the alley. And, of course, there’s a threat to humankind as we know it. What Mr. Either/Or is concerned with – and does so well – is keeping you engaged. Its quick, poppy pace has you devouring page after page, hungry for what comes next.

Poochigian’s talent is evident from the first lines and Mr. Either/Or serves as his poetic playground. He twirls you through loops of language – highly paratactic sentences with crisp, sensory words are broken by valley bro-slang like dude and sweet. Poochigian both feeds our basest natures and challenges us as readers. He gut punches us at every turn with lines like:

“a slug/ explodes his forehead, brains Rorschach the wall.”

“A meat mustache/ sprouts, spreads/ and the split-lip smacks/ of old pennies.”

And his sentences are some of the most innovative I’ve seen in years:

“Metal doors/ named Exit Only flank a barrel vault, its half-moon Tiffanied with Plexiglass,/ its base a palimpsest of bills for alt-/ electro-psycho-Euro-billy-bands.”

Poochigian has his fun too, toying with his reader, his character, you, or all of the above. He opens sections by interrupting the story just to speak directly to you:

“Sorry to butt in while you’re making out/ with Ms. Levine, but there’s a second myth/ that’s out there spoiling to be reckoned with.”

Poochigian’s linguistic tensor relaxes the pace with pensive moments like these, which seem straight from Hamlet:

“Fresh pillow and a bed not yours, but deeper./ What stranger-flesh is there? What corpse or sleeper?”

Mr. Either/Or is unlike anything I have ever read. At every turn it engages, at every turn it thinks generously of the reader. It is a novel unafraid to be both playful and intelligent, hopeful and dark. Its kitschier elements give way to language that gives pause and instills awe. It is a novel that you can read again and again, and still find something new and magical in its body.

Mr. Either/Or is published by Etruscan Press.

 

 

http://www.mreitheror.com/




Sad Little Dream: A Review of Calder G. Lorenz’s One Way Down (Or Another)

There are many facets to a novel that will early in the work tell me whether or not I will like a book. There are catapulting openers like Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, whose first chapter unfurls like incantations summoning a demon. Or there are exchanges so instantly captivating, we can’t help but turn the page, like Barbara Browning’s inappropriate intimacy in The Gift.

From the first moment in Calder G. Lorenz’s One Way Down (Or Another), we are struck with the author’s undeniable talent for building the most uncomfortable ride:

“And then I thought: Hell, if I stay in San Francisco, I’ll end up like the men who stood in line to build the Golden Gate Bridge, only to fall from the heavens, replaced by the next man in line, just another asshole caught in a net, suspended there, broken back and all, dangling, hung halfway out to hell.”

Henceforth we follow an unnamed narrator on his – intentional or not – journey to take himself down. We meet him in front of a soup kitchen of sorts on his last day of work after completing a program to get sober. Having no prospects, no one to turn to, and no idea what to do next, he seems, already, strung halfway out to hell.

His ex-boss Ray sets him up in a vacant room in his home and gets him a job as a back-up truck driver picking up items people no longer want. He enjoys the job for a time and manages to stay sober – it seems as if things are looking up. There is a resolution (on the narrator’s part) to implode the self, build anew, and test the boundaries of the world, all while doing his best not to fuck everything up. But we know he will, as Lorenz’s unspooling language leads us unblinded toward the cliff.

He stops off at a pizza shop one day on his pickup route because he has some time to kill, and some people just should not have spare time. The narrator wishes, “I’d at least had a paper, or hell, even a pamphlet would be fine, anything to run my eyes over.” He eats a slice, drinks his water, and tries to keep to himself, but the universe – in the form of a bored waitress with two beers in hand – presents an opportunity for error and the narrator takes it.

The spiral to come is both ineluctable and surprising, we know it’s coming, but god if we could only pretend too that yes, he can drive that truck only having had a few beers and sure, he can do just a bump of cocaine. But sadly, we know he can’t. As we edge through part one and read all the inescapable pain to come – the narrator loses his job, is caught drinking by the head of his rehabilitation program, obliterates his sobriety with drugs and drink – the voice of the piece starts to shift. The narrator’s tone changes from that of misguided promise to a kind of resolute hopelessness.

“And as we drove and I mashed down the things I’d done into something I could swallow, I thought about how deserved it was that I found myself on the same highway which only days before had brought me to the ocean, brought me nothing but thought of healing and excitement for something called potential, built and paved with a bit of redemption. And yet, there I was, only to be found falling from yet another precipice. Dangled halfway to that endlessly elusive pit of possibility.”

In this world of uncertainty the narrator has (mostly) created for himself, there is a perpendicular sharpness to the language. As heartbreaking as it can be at times, marching us towards that cliff, there is a unique rhythm and wit to the dialogue:

He said, “I don’t have to explain anything to you. It’s Christmas. It’s my life. And if one day out of an entire year I wanted to dabble, forget, celebrate because I have no one to celebrate with, well, then, I don’t have to explain anything to anyone. This is my home.”

He said, “I hate Christmas.”

He said, “I’m allowed to celebrate. I’ve earned it. It’s been four damn years clean for me. What I do is what I do.”

And I said, “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.”

And he said, “Well, you damn well are now.”

Resolving not to drag his ex-boss, Ray, down with him, thinking that only one of them would make it out of this last fall together, the narrator leaves San Francisco for his childhood home in Columbus, Ohio, to try and find redemption by salvaging what’s left of his grandfather’s life. Instead, he finds a home nearly gambled away by his step-grandmother, his grandfather careening into full-blown dementia in a nursing home, and some high school acquaintances that want to beat him for wrongdoings past. Even his last attempt to do something good (settle his step-grandmother’s debts) comes out of something terrible (money made through drugs swiped from the nursing home) Thwarted in his redemptive attempts, the narrator returns to San Francisco, “to put an end to all of this failure and failing”.

There are moments that, in a lesser novel, I might find irksome, but in Lorenz’s work I find moving. For instance, some things might’ve felt convenient for the narrator’s arc. People appear and quickly disappear from his life merely to serve something the narrator needed to learn or do. Take for instance, the high-school acquaintances that pummel our narrator in an alleyway for injustices past. The narrator remarks – mid-beating – that it was, “the pain that comes with settling our debts.” These characters appear, the narrator gains an understanding of the moment, and the characters disappear for the remainder of the novel. In a lesser book, this might irritate me, but in Lorenz’s it only enhances the failure and isolation the narrator seems hell-bent on surrounding himself with. The strength of the novel lies in the empathy Lorenz makes us feel towards the narrator. We aren’t reading on for sharp plot turns or otherworldly language, but instead to be caught up in the ebb and flow of the narrator-as-story. Weighty sentences that mimic the narrator’s existential spiral give way to language that is cutting and paratactic and hilariously biting. The balance between the two keeps the reader turning over emotions again and again, creating a novel of hope and hopelessness  through switchbacks of sentences.

“A moment is one thing. We’ve all got a shot at that. But you need a lifetime of perfection to ascend to the heavens, and most of us spend our time shattering one thing after the other. We run around with our hammers, trying to fix a world of glass.”

One Way Down (Or Another) is a poignant work of limitations, metamorphoses and, finally, self-destruction. It is a world of escaped realities and broken dreams, companionship and solitude, and, of course, unattainable redemption. It blends the narrator’s life with our own until we somehow, in the end, find ourselves suspended in water, crashing waves around, living out his “own sad little dream” with him.

One Way Down (Or Another) is published by Civil Coping Mechanisms (CCM).




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“People only want McDonald’s.”

Dappled light broke over the table, refracting in crystalline glasses with thumbprints on their bowls and lipstick kisses along their rims. Miniature wooden parrots strung up like wind chimes wavered overhead, hung from curled iron rods shaped like leafy tendrils of kudzu, minute twinkle lights snaked over them. A balmy draft ruffled the tablecloth and the clouds moved above in turreted furrows, soft shadows undulating over their faces. Patrons around them sipped pulpy mimosas and talked sailing upstate. It was a beautiful day.

“Seriously, they want Big Macs and Whoppers and curly fries. They’ll accept a meatball parm bake from Subway as some kind of ‘healthy’ deviation every once in a while. But the formula’s pretty simple.”

He said all of this while flicking his thumb up on his phone, scrolling through photographs and tweets and posts with little enthusiasm. She looked down at her own phone. Her Instagram account was open. Page after page of filtered little squares, each capturing a snippet of her work for online perusal. Some oil-paint faces, cracked and ageing in saturated hues. Deep watercolours of alleys and broken buildings. A variegated digital plane of her life’s work on display for any troll’s like or dislike or nasty comment to absorb. And not one of them had seen a gallery. 123 followers. 0 likes. She looked up. He continued his flipping. She put her phone on the table.

“Here let me see.”

He took her phone, flipped through a few pictures.

“Don’t you have any of you making art? These are all just of your pieces.”

She shook her head.

“Yeah well, these are beautiful, but no one knows what to do with them.”

“So?”

“McDonald’s. Seriously. Do you see what I mean?”

She took her phone back.

“I see.”

Nearby a child cried, its doting mother failing to comfort. Finches gathered in a birch tree not far from where they sat, hopping playfully about its branches. The child continued his wailing. A heady, pancake smell surrounded them. It was a mean, sour cry with no pain or suffering behind it. She glanced over. The child was unhappy because he was unhappy.

“I have to go,” she said.

“But we haven’t ordered.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I’ll make it up.”

“Here, wait,” he said. He reached into his pocket. “I wrote you a poem.”

He held out a square fold of paper. She took it as if she didn’t even see it.

“You know, let me know what you think. Or whatever.”

“Sure, sure.”

And with her jacket and bag hugged to her chest, she was gone.

*

Her apartment was mostly studio, draped floor to stuccoed ceiling with drop cloths and plastics to protect the walls, furniture. Barefoot, she circled the floor, tarps crackling underheel. Light fell in ugly shafts through soiled windows, the dust motes illuminated around her. An easel stood propped in the center of what should be a living room, tarnished and clean canvases piled everywhere, stacked against chairs, drying on racks. She looked at them all, and hated them.

“What good are you?” she cried.

She began to dismantle the place. She stuffed skewed portraits in bags, warped landscapes down the garbage chute, and chucked paper airplane drafts out the window. She felt nothing for them now. Soon she had rid the place of every last painting, sketch, doodle on a post-it. A stack of clean canvases leaned against the wall to her left and she took one, placed it on the easel, and lined colours on a tray. Raw Umber. Vandyke Brown. Ivory Black. Sienna. Brown Ochre. Payne’s Grey. Midnight. Titanium White. A sundry rainbow of lusterless colours. She painted a black-grey rectangle. She painted another next to it, slightly lighter. And then another and another. Each lighter than the last, moving across the plane in three rows of seven. The rectangles took on their own personalities of grey, their surfaces knotted swirls of black and white. She piled one by one with gesso and paint, thick brushstrokes like silt on the surface, so thick you could swim it. When she finally finished, she stood back and frowned. They were rectangles of grey, but without awareness she had splashed streaks of ochre in the black, a smatter of navy in the white. Had she mixed her blues and blacks? What remained was something like a bruise staring back at her. She took a picture. 1 like. She took the canvas down. Replaced it. Started over. This time a Russian nesting doll of rectangles, one inside the other, getting larger and larger, moving from light to dark. And no vagrant reds or yellows had train-hopped in, but the rectangles were hardly that, more like sloppy ovals or misshapen eyes. She’d focused so hard on the colours, she’d lost sight of framework. 0 likes.

“Shit,” she said.

“Seriously. McDonald’s.”

She grabbed her jacket.

With paint-streaked cheeks and hands, dustings of grey and white in her hair, she ordered. Cheeseburger. Filet-o-fish. Chocolate sundae. Chicken McNuggets. Cola. Large fries. In grease-spotted bags, she toted the haul back to her studio and spread them out on a drop cloth like paints and brushes. The smell was overwhelming, but something in their shape made her think of the Play-Doh patties she used to sculpt as a kid, forcing her cousins into pretend dinners with purple spaghetti and lime-green meatballs. She picked the fish and bit. Tartar and crispy skin. She ate and washed it down with soda. She took her paints, then put them down again. The sundae had melted into a bog of brown and she took her ochres and the dark sienna and mixed them until they mirrored one another. She drank the sundae and painted, matching swigs of chocolate with strokes on the canvas. She ate the cheeseburger, pausing between bites of pickle to dip nuggets in thick honey mustard. The fries she put between her knuckles and made like Wolverine on the canvas, ruts of grease left in the umber. She sucked grease and salt and bits of paint from her fingertips and felt sick.

She lay fetus-like on the floor for hours.

Sometime later, when a crepuscular haze crept in, she stood and painted a coat hanger. Two thin coat hangers side by side, both different shades of grey, no shadows or three-dimensional give. Just two flat coat hangers slightly upturned at the ends. She stood back and smiled. She took a picture. Her stomach growled.

7 likes.

She ran down to the bodega on the corner. Taquito. Pay Day. Hot Takis.

A grey pencil. A Cup.

10 likes.

Bakery. Cupcake. Red Velvet. Tres Leches.

A black key. Flat. No shadows. White background.

16 likes.

Dollar slices. Pepperoni. Ham and pineapple. Hot dog and mac ’n’ cheese.

Silhouette of an angelfish.

32 likes.

Days and weeks.

Chinese. Dumplings. Fried rice. General Tso’s.

A solitary teacup.

56 likes.

And she ate more and more. Whopper. Apple turnover. Backyard burger. Shoestring fries. McFlurries. Hot Pockets. French dip. Jr. Bacon cheeseburger. Quarter pounder. Chicken bucket. Shrimp poppers. Coney Island. Bloomin’ onion. Nacho burrito. Personal pan pizzas. McRib. Chicken wings. Tater tots. Fro-yo. 77 Likes. And she ate and ate and ate and stuffed a wedge of Big Mac in her mouth and she choked and choked and choked and died.