In the midst of some routine tagging in Instagram, I stumbled upon a unique hashtag for Ben Loory. Most authors have quite a few posts under the hashtag of their own name, sometimes with the title of their most famous/recent book alongside it, accompanying pictures of bookstore readings or well-filtered shelving arrangements. Ben was the only one I ever tried to tag with a name that brings up an actual phrase as a hashtag: “#benloorystoriesarebeautiful”. I’m sure there are probably dozens of these for other authors that I’m simply too lazy to find, but I believe finding it by accident this way speaks to Ben’s character and style of writing. His stories feature an array of genres, characters, and creatures, but are never defined by any of them. They are short stories, so short that it sometimes feels like you’ve taken one as a vitamin instead of opening up a book. His admirers vary across a very vast spectrum of readers – noir enthusiasts, speculative fiction fans, academics, young children, and most importantly, people who don’t typically read – these are the people who have come to know and love Ben’s gift for writing. And yes, the stories are beautiful.
His first book of short stories Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is heartwarming, but not in the saccharine, vomit-inducing, Hallmark greeting card kind of way. It’s hard to find the kind of writer who can make a story about a duck falling in love with a rock, or a tea-drinking octopus, bring you to tears. Ben wields the power of the fable to ultimate effect. By that, I mean that I think he has discovered the secrets of its form and function – knowing Ben, he probably followed a talking frog into a sea cave or has a kitchen full of liquefied literary techniques. Whether he had the patience to learn the secrets of a wizened old amphibian, or knows his way around a story recipe like he’s Alton fucking Brown – who knows? What I do know is that his work has made crossovers like his children’s book The Baseball Player and the Walrus, and that his latest story collection, Tales of Falling and Flying, earns the incredible blurb across the top – none less than Ray Bradbury proclaiming, “This guy can write!”
The stories in Tales of Falling and Flying seemed darker to me than that of his previous work, but everyone I’ve talked to about it says that they think the opposite. I guess that really shouldn’t be a surprise – his stories seem to cultivate a unique meaning for everyone who hears them. At a live reading of “The Dodo”, the first story in the book, two friends reacted differently: one was choked up at the prospect of the titular bird’s perseverance as a metaphor for gender identity, and the other simply stated, “Damn, that Dodo got fucked up”. The dark tones of stories like “The Ambulance Driver”, with it’s grim themes but merciful ending, could just have easily fit into a volume of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to tell in the Dark. What truly makes Ben’s stories memorable is that they resemble fables, but whether they teach a moral or not is extremely subjective. Many of them – “Lana Onion” being my favorite – are more slice of life with a tinge of surrealism, as if you tasked David Lynch to rewrite three random sentences in a Raymond Carver story. But don’t let the simplicity fool you – stories like “James K. Polk”, “The Dragon”, and “The Sloth” are very different than what their titles divulge. My best advice is this: if you think you have Ben figured out, you’re wrong. “The Squid who fell in love with the Sun” is the best science fiction short story I’ve read all year, but I bet if you asked him, he’d tell you that wasn’t what he was going for.
As you may have figured out from my blatant use of his first name, I do know Ben in person. It’s hard not to know him – he’s an active literary citizen in the Southern California scene, supporting writing in many forms. At almost every book launch, reading, lit crawl, charity show, or writing hootenanny, he’s there. Sometimes he’s a participant, sometimes a patron, but always with a kind word, an offering of encouragement, and the benefit of his company. If you think this review is biased because I know him, then I suppose it is. But trust me, this won’t be the last place you hear about Ben and his stories. Many people besides me will tell you about a beautiful little story they read by this author you should know – maybe they’ll even use a hashtag. It will be up to you to take the plunge and check them out for yourself. I promise you that this will require a measure of trust, a letting go on your own part, so that Ben’s tales can whistle past your ears. But is it worth it, to discover in the midst of your fall, that you’re actually flying?
Tales of Falling and Flying
by Ben Loory
Penguin; 224 p.