Owen Egerton, How Best to Avoid Dying
2007, 183 pages, paperback, $13.95
owen egerton’s writing blends riotous humor with surrealism, tedious seriousness, and overwrought sentimentality. The first of his stories, “Spelling,” is completely absurd and imaginative. The voice of the narrator, a small girl participating in a spelling bee, is reserved and deadpan, providing a beautiful disparity between her attitude and the horror of the hog pit, which opens beneath the contestants when they misspell a word. Egerton understands perfectly well how to couple the irrational with a straight-faced character, highlighting the humor by contrast.
In the second story of his collection, “Waffle,” the narrator is an ex-Waffle House inspector who finds himself in a Waffle House that, if you have ever been to a Waffle House, is easily recognizable as trademark for its service (slow and rude) and hilarious for its quirks (a cook named Stumpy with a spatula duct taped to his handless wrist). The ending is the best-written passage of Egerton’s collection:
As I pull out of the parking lot and head west, I imagine Hillary (the waitress) chasing after me, galloping her Cash Cow out of the Waffle House, through the parking lot and into the traffic of Interstate 10, pursuing me all the way to Santa Fe, hollering like a Valkyrie, with a pot of coffee in one hand and a slice of apple pie in the other, daring me every moment of every mile not to feel ecstatic about being alive in this world.
Unfortunately, in most of the stories following “Waffle,” Egerton is not nearly as adroit at tying up his humor with heartfelt earnestness. Many of his pieces border on aimless attempts at comedy with tales told by weak, inconsistent voices-the worst being a man who names his penis Lord Baxtor and really enjoys masturbating. The story, “Lord Baxtor of Ballsington,” reads like a thirteen-year-old boy’s attempt to turn his own masturbatory fantasies into prose, complete with lesbian daydreams and the insertion of a foreign object into a vagina. A far cry from “Waffle.”
“Of All Places” is reminiscent of a poor man’s Jack Kerouac: “So now I’m walking. Long road, lights swipe by and snag the dark. Step away from the road to see more stars, to feel less steel. Walk. Catch that stride.” Egerton does not seem to have much purpose behind this style of writing, other than reveling in the sound of his own words.
“Tonight at Noon” is a sentimental foray into a three-month-old relationship abruptly ended by a suicide. The body stays with us throughout the story, but despite the potentially comical necrophilic pursuits of the narrator, the maudlin language overpowers:
I don’t move. I don’t breathe. In the room black changes to different shades of dark. Outlines and objects. I wouldn’t move. I wouldn’t breathe. Jenny, I wouldn’t even breathe. I don’t want to die, Jenny. For no good reason, I don’t want to die. And even if I did, I don’t think I could. Stop squeezing, Jenny. You’re hurting my hand. Let’s just sit here in the dark. My heart is popping like a stand up bass, Jenny. We’ll leave. I’ll put you in the car and drive you to Mexico, okay? The sun will be up by then and it will burn all the black away. Okay, Jenny? Okay?
These are the lines that end the story. Perhaps if the narrator had known the now-dead gal for more than several months, then such emotion could garner feeling in a reader. Perhaps not.
Knowing what Egerton is capable of, by the brilliance of his first two stories, I am left feeling cheated by the rest of the book. “The Martyrs of Mountain Peak,” a story about a devoutly Christian summer camp, is imaginative and irreverent, centering on a rabid leader-redolent of Marshall Applewhite or David Koresh-and his troop of counselors who take turns sacrificing their lives in various absurd and humorous ways in an attempt to convert campers to the way of Christ. As a longer piece, this story might develop the depth it now lacks at a mere nine pages. As is, it reads as a surface summary of an unrealized idea.
Egerton is clearly accomplished in the art of humor, and capable of heartfelt emotion, but in most of this collection he is unable to follow through with his talent.