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By Stephen G. Eoannou
Santa Fe Writers Project (SFWP)
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Devo asks, "Are we not men?" Stephen G. Eoannou asks the same question in his short story collection, Muscle Cars. The collection features "a diverse cast of inarticulate misfits." These misfits include an obsessive bodybuilder, a former boxer, a couple boyhood friends planning to steal Ted Williams' frozen head, and others. Eoannou sets the stories around the Buffalo, New York area, a town consigned to the Rust Belt, famous for its ferocious winters, beef on weck, and hot chicken wings. In these stories men try and navigate their directionless lives. Beset on all sides by the harsh realities of the Great Recession and wrestling with their own masculinity, they try. Most try and fail, but at least they try.
Masculinity is about cultural expectations, public and private performance to friends, co-workers, and loved ones, and, finally, the role one is expected to play. In these stories one can almost hear the Snowpiercer character Mason lecturing the plebes, "Know your place!" Unlike the economic determinism of Snowpiercer, one's place in society is harder to tack down.
In the title story, Tom Mastoris has trouble sleeping because the kids next door rev their cars and play loud music at all hours. Maureen, his wife, tells Scott to go next door and make them quiet down. Everyone in this tiny story is irreparably damaged. Scott lost his brother Gregg to an IED and the neighbor kid, Scott, lost his mother in a drunk driving accident. Tom tries to confront Scott about the noise, but ends up telling them how his brother Gregg died. The story ends unresolved, the emotional wounds left unhealed. When confronted with expressing their emotions, both Tom and Scott shut down. Like the cars Scott works on, Tom expresses himself not with emotional openness but in a crude ritual of lifting weights. The addictive workaholic nature of bodybuilding gets snarled in the vanity and "feminine" aspects of the sport. Maureen is confused, because Tom shaves his entire body and makes sure he looks good in front of the mirror. But he's not a competitor. Maureen wants to know who he does this for. "Who, Tom? Who's them?" Is Tom doing this for his brother? To cope with the loss? Some kind of vanity project to overcompensate for a loss of masculinity? It is never explained.
Many stories in Muscle Cars are like this: short, tautly written, and ending just shy of a resolution. While the characters exist in a heteronormative space, they confront their masculinity in an entirely localized way. The trope of Man versus Self is seen across different age and economic groups. Characters include high schoolers, substitute teachers, technical writers, old timers at an Off Track Betting parlor, and Second World War veterans. Each faces a dilemma seen through the filter of peer and society expectations. Society says, "Men must act this way." In "The Wolf Boy of Forest Lawn," a substitute teacher plan a semester around a field trip to Forest Lawn cemetery and the disappearance of the Wolf Boy. The teacher does this in an attempt to reach a troubled boy in class, but also uses it as a ruse to get closer to his divorced mother. It doesn't end well. The story resolves itself with emotional devastation. Many of these stories are populated with cowards, whiners, and boasters. Eoannou's stories have created a pantheon where cowardice becomes a heroic act. The men in these stories now have to confront the consequences of their inaction. When reading these, one is forced to ask, "He acted like a coward, but would I have acted any differently?" Even I don't have a definitive answer to that question.
The reason for the high grade are manifold. It is a highly relevant short story collection, since it explores the inner turmoil of straight white males in the post-9/11, post-Great Recession world. But this focus on an otherwise privileged group is undercut since most men in this collection are not economically privileged. To demonize these character on racial and gender grounds seems a bit tone deaf and hypocritical. It should also be noted that this focus is not ideological or reactionary. This isn't some harangue by some Men's Rights mouth-breather or crypto-fascist making excuses for the atrocities committed by the Ferguson, Missouri police force. The non-ideological basis of the stories liberates them from a narrow reading. Besides, ideology is boring. The characters' struggles are internal, deeply personal, and psychologically affecting. Beyond this is the fact that these stories have cross-over appeal. I can see my father reading these stories. These aren't the insular, solipsistic exercises of Creative Writing MFAs writing to other Creative Writing MFAs. The term "literary fiction" can be limiting and inaccessible to the general readership. (Whatever that is? It's hard to pin down, since public taste, trends, and fads are fickle and constantly change.) The accessibility of these stories co-exist with their incredible level of high craftsmanship. Eoannou's characters have to face tough situations, most of all their own delusions, and the demands of a world that expects men to act manly, nut up, and not cry like a woman. And Society isn't another abstract representation alien to everyday experience. It is your relatives, family, civic leaders, and friends all demanding, consciously and unconsciously, to act in such-and-such a way and to know your place. All the more confusing, since it is macho to "take it like a man," but also macho to say, "No!"
Out of 10/10
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