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Dangerous Stories for Boys
By Christopher Bernard
A Press of Rabble
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Christopher Bernard's new collection of short stories, Dangerous Stories for Boys is a mixed bag by turns frustrating, astonishing, and off-putting. Since this is the second collection of short stories of Bernard's I've reviewed, I've come to the realization I like his long-form work much better. Since reviews are a product of subjectivity and personal taste, the inevitable Your Mileage May Vary caveat remains in place. The issue being there were stories I liked, stories I didn't like, and a story that seemed totally out of place in the collection.
Bernard shoulders the difficult task of contemplating where the white heterosexual male fits in modern US culture. This is no idle musing or patriarchal challenge. Unfortunately, as the short story collection moves along, it becomes the case of well-meaning intentions bungled in execution. One longer story follows a teenage blogger writing strident screeds about things wrong with the world. Much of the story's content had merit. Parents don't understand. Rampant racism and idiocy. Teenage love. The problem was I couldn't get beyond the fact that it was written by a middle-aged man trying to sound like a teen. Everything had the feel of world-weary wisdom. Although the term "authentic" is over-used and borderline meaningless, especially when used to describe cuisine and politicians, the teen didn't sound authentic. It's a challenging perspective to make sound right.
While that story rubbed me the wrong way, another long piece near the end tells about a misbegotten flirtation between a moody high school guy and a Muslim girl who wear a veil to cover her face. He begins obsessing over her beautiful eyes and they have touching conversations. If he pries too deep, she chides him, saying, "FBI! FBI!" Then she suddenly disappears, the guy suspecting it might be an honor killing. We never know for sure, as his amateur investigations turn into an unhealthy obsession. It is Vertigo meets Atlas Shrugged. I bring up the latter work because during his obsessive quest to find the Muslim girl, he contemplates American culture, feminism and Islam, and the dress codes of American and Muslim women. He contemplates and then contemplates some more. The narrative, propelled forward with the intensity of a thriller, slams to a complete halt. The story ends with his embrace of Islam, leaving me with a bad aftertaste. Mainly because he seemed a bright young man suddenly turned into a credulous toady. I didn't buy it.
The final story is Franz Kafka's father writing his son a letter. It seemed interesting, but came across as a literary stunt. The piece felt out of place, especially coming on the heels of the love story/thriller/non-fiction essay. My biggest critique of these stories stems not from their overall intention, but more from the fact Bernard was using a cudgel instead of a scalpel. The title also was a bit too on-the-nose for me. When approaching something like American masculinity, the best approach isn't a frontal attack or scathing critique.
Out of 10/8.0
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