#tobyreads: Harrowing Stories, Powerfully Told


The three books up for discussion this week are all, to one extent or another, abrasive. These are not always pleasant reads: whether recounting actual events or delving into the world of fiction, there are scenes to be found that can only be described as harrowing.

Sean Madigan Hoen first landed on my radar over a decade ago, when I was editing a zine and reviewing a whole lot of hardcore records. His band at the time, Thoughts of Ionesco, made utterly unclassifiable music that was far more abrasive and jarring than the majority of what I was listening to at the time. Sean Madigan Hoen was the vocalist in that band; his just-released memoir, Songs Only You Know, is largely set during that time as well. And while readers who were active in the hardcore scene at the time will likely nod their heads at some of the details here, Hoen’s life as a musician isn’t the focus here. Instead, it’s the wrenching details of his family’s slow implosion: his father’s addiction, his sister’s depression, and his own attempts to find a catharsis.

That catharsis takes a variety of forms as the book progresses, from physically exhausting, self-flagellating performances to acts of violence to chemically-induced bliss. Songs Only You Know isn’t an easy read, but it both evokes the quotidian moments of life and shows the ways in which normal people placed into abnormal situations can break. It’s a window into a series of lives, and it’s often heartbreaking.

The characters in Juliet Escoria’s collection Black Cloud also chase bliss of various varieties, whether via drugs, bad relationships, or a combination of the two. (Full disclosure: one of these stories first appeared on Vol.1 Brooklyn.) In measured prose, Escoria finds the humanity in fractured lives: a woman brought up by her addicted-model mother; a narrator witnessing the long implosion of a relationship; the unlikely allure of working at a Lower East Side club. These stories are uniformly effective; they veer at you in unexpected ways (particularly “Heroin Story”) and devastate, sometimes quietly and sometimes brutally.

J. David Osborne’s Our Blood in its Blind Circuit takes its title from a line in Cortazar’s Hopscotch; just as that novel defied expectations of narrative momentum, here, Osborne takes familiar crime-fiction scenes and renders them surreal. (Much as with Black Cloud, one of these stories also appeared here last year.) One story finds a narrative of betrayal and gunplay juxtaposed by skin-crawling body horror; another, about a pair of hard-living police, veers into the surreal, though not enough to cover the brutal violence that pervades it. At times, some of these stories seem like the flipside of Laird Barron’s more crime-oriented work–though this collection doesn’t entirely consist of crime stories. There’s also the bittersweet “Like Most Things Easy,” as well as “Gritty,” which closes the book with a riff on certain noir cliches and ends on a wonderfully batshit note, triumphant and absurd.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.