Review by Hunter Braithwaite
I bartended in college and heard a lot of stories, half-listening mostly, which is one of the two modes of listening available to bartenders. The other was being a tractor beam of attention, therapist-style, but that got too real. I was content to eavesdrop, picking up shards of grievances, catcalls, confessions, resolutions, oaths, and sexist jokes. These stayed shards, because while I thought at the time that they would fuel my writing with the timber of real life, they ended up being by and large bullshit.
Steve Hughes has a better ear than I do, with the near decades of Stupor is proof. The zine started in 1995, when Hughes took the stories he heard in bars (and other places comprising the terroir of hard-scrabble America) and writing them down. In his own words, he takes the stories in “skeletal form…and puts a skin on them.” He has withheld all names to protect the not-so-innocent, instead identifying the protagonists by sex and location. As to what the stories are about, they usually involve booze.
This exciting collection picks up in 2007, when Hughes began inviting artists (mostly Detroit-based) to design the zines. Strumming through the bound edition, you come across the work of Gina Reichert, Kamil Antos, Faina Lerman, Elliott Earls, Teresa Petersen, Chris Riddell, Tim Hailey, Mitch Cope, Mira Burak, Scott Hocking, Lisa Anne Auerbach, Jeff Karolski, Nina Bianchi, and Clinton Snider. (A recent edition contains the work of Matthew Barney). Throughout, the artwork nicely complements the stories, sometimes illustrating the tales, and other times offering subtle reverb to the cacophony.
Each zine has around five stories varying in length from paragraph to multi-page. While the characters span class, location, and gender, the anonymous first-person with which Hughes describes them creates an eerie feeling of a single, shifting narrator. And while the trials of this narrator differ greatly, all the stories have a lot in common.
At the end of the first issue, designer/architect Gina Reichert cleverly inserts an “Index of Keywords,” in which she lists all of the important terms mentioned in the issue. Blindly putting my finger down on the page ten times comes up with: crack, basement, dirt, exhaust, beer, drunk, cigarette, girls, hard stuff, tomato sauce. If I were to create an index for the entire book—an index that could also serve all of the real-life bar stories I’ve heard—it wouldn’t be much different.
In fact, blindly thrusting a finger somewhere is a perfect way to read this book. (It also could be the pivotal act of one of the stories.) Because most of the stories are fragments of a larger narrative, it is pointless to read the collection all of the way through. Much better, I found, to open to any page and start reading. Usually, the first lines sum up the entire story. “My wife was crazy,” (pg. 14), “After surgery I didn’t have any trouble getting used to taking painkillers and sinking into the couch.” (pg. 50); or, a personal favorite, “We got this invisible dog fence” (pg. 120).
In that story, the male narrator from Bloomfield Hills has to deal with his young son who wants to try out the electric dog collar. The father decides that this will be a good opportunity to instill some common sense in the boy, so he clips it on:
He barks and pretends to wag his tail. Then he bounces around on his hands and knees over toward the fence line and the collar beeps and then snaps and shoots a little spark into his neck and he yelps just like our dog. He comes running back crying because it hurts. Well, of course it hurts. Dumb ass kid.
A few days later, the child mentions it to a teacher, and then social services get involved. The story ends on a note of moral ambivalence, or at least I thought it did when I read it the first time. As I rewrite this here, I find it difficult to find the sympathy that I first felt when reading the story. That is the strange effect of these stories. I don’t know if it’s the word-of-mouth quality: the feeling that, in reading them, you are actually hearing them, first hand, from a messed-up but still good at heart person sitting at the barstool next to you, slowly turning a near-empty pint of Miller Lite. Each story, which moves from peccadillo to fuckup to betrayal, hints at that strange land between empathy and sympathy, in which you kind of relate. From that position, it’s easy to feel the warmth of community. But then again, that’s probably the beer.
The conventions of plot are absent, and with them, any sort of redemptive twist at the end. At the end Hughes often pulls the story upwards, as if offering an opportunity for reflection. However, the conditions aren’t right. The meaning is often meaningless, in place only to confound and cement to the barstool. Well I’ll be… That said, the stories don’t moralize, and they mercifully don’t force us into that position. For the most part, they’re just really fun.
As it turns out, the zine form is a perfect match for these types of stories. It can easily be reproduced but not without exponential degradation. It purports uniqueness, but is inherently tied to the act of reproduction. It is authored and authorless. The conditions depend on bare-bones style. There is no time for lengthy descriptions of light falling on parquet or the way a young woman’s freckles thin out across the gentle curves of her cheeks.
Throughout the book, we are reminded that these are true stories, and while I’m sure that Hughes did his share of sculpting when he “put skin on them,” their truncated nature cannot help but belie a type of cartoonish grotesque. Sometimes you can peer right through the glass, be that glass a pint glass or a dirty windshield, to see Raymond Carver’s characters. Take the first few lines of “Male, Hazel Park”
My wife is thundering around our apartment, mad. I wish she would walk like a normal person. I don’t remember her stomping around like this before we got married, and I know she wasn’t so heavy. I have pictures. In our wedding shots she’s a little pixie. I didn’t make her eat all that cheese and pizza and ice cream. It’s not my fault that she lost her shape. I’m not there shoveling all those rich, sweet carbs into her mouth that make her ass spread out.
This seems a pastiche of “They’re Not Your Husband,” Carver’s brutal story about Doreen, a diner waitress who is bullied into losing weight by Earl, her unemployed husband. This similarity is, I suppose, a testament to the worth of these stories. Hughes has done something very admirable in keeping these often pathetic, but always engaging records. I hope he keeps listening.
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Steve Hughes, Stupor: A Treasury of True Stories (Stupor House, 2011)
Cover and Images: from Steve Hughes, Stupor: A Treasury of True Stories, Stupor House, 2011