Chuck Augello has an MFA from Queens University, is a contributing editor to Cease, Cows, and publishes The Daily Vonnegut website. He is the author of a novel, The Revolving Heart, but this is his first collection of short stories.
The fourteen stories in The Inexplicable Grey Space share a macabre black humour and surreal quirkiness: they sit somewhere in the magical realism zone. The opening story ‘Pizza Monks,’ begins, ‘We were almost ready to close when two Buddhist monks walked in and ordered twenty large cheese pizzas to go.’ This turns out to be a last supper before their leader’s self-immolation. If this sounds like the set up to a bizarre joke, so do many of the scenarios in this collection. Have you heard the one about the goat they found in the bathroom of McDonalds? Or the one about the man caught dressing in his daughter-in-law’s underwear? Each story starts off with a strong and weird hook that immediately pulls you in and keeps you reading.
Augello manages combine these bizarre and comedic situations with sympathetic characters trapped in ordinary but desperate situations. Most of the characters are regular working class Americans with little money and dead-end jobs, struggling with loneliness, difficult relationships, jealousy or grief. In Augello’s focus on people who are worn down by difficult lives and whose struggles are compounded by money worries, he reminds me of a little of George Saunders. Like Saunders, there can be a slightly smug macho-ness in their detachment and insistence on making a joke out of things. Sometimes I found the darkness and bleakness of these stories – particularly those featuring animals in peril – a bit hard to stomach.
On the other hand, some of the stories have a lot of heart, and I think they will stay with me for a long time. ‘Cool City,’ is a strange romance, which unfolds as a storm threatens, then devastates the city. Dash has OCD tendencies: every evening he eats twenty-seven strands of linguine cooked for nine minutes and twenty-four seconds, then two frozen waffles and a spoonful of peanut butter; he cannot relax unless he knows where the nearest fire extinguisher is. Anabelle has ‘lovely shins,’ and is completing a series of graphic novels about an existentialist kangaroo solving crimes in 1920s Paris. She’s also an adherent of the ‘fast love movement,’ which encourages people to fall in love with two days, commit to each other, and get married within a month. The story includes charts and diagrams showing the couple’s compatibility, and the theories of ‘fast love.’ The characters are a bit stereotyped: manic pixie dream girl meets Ben Affleck in The Accountant. ‘Cool City,’ could easily drown under its own self-conscious whimsy. But somehow, despite the odds, Augello makes it very touching. Dash’s backstory feels real, his loneliness palpable, and the ending is uplifting but not too neat. Dash and Anabelle save each other, embracing each other’s oddities with a gentle compassion that many couples take years to find.
Augello’s style is conversational and heavy on dialogue, like listening to a good raconteur spin a tale. His stories are easy to read, fast-paced, well-constructed and very entertaining. While some of the stories feel a little shallow, as though the only purpose was go for a punch line, now and then moments of real grace shine through the darkness.
The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love is published by Duck Lake Books and is available here.
Chuck Augello is the author of The Revolving Heart (Black Rose Writing). His work has appeared in One Story, Literary Hub, The Coachella Review, and other fine journals. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. A contributing editor for Cease, Cows, he publishes The Daily Vonnegut, a website exploring the life and art of American writer Kurt Vonnegut.
Reviewed by Kate Tyte
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