By Paul Beckman
Big Table Publishing
Reviewed by Jacob Singer
With sixty-five stories packed into 117 pages, Paul Beckman's Peek is a wonder; these flash fictions playfully bring characters to life within deliberately circumscribed frames. The result is a collection packed full of slapstick, black humor, and loneliness.
The title story, ambling and full of details, offers a compelling glimpse at what Beckman can do as a writer. Playful and full of local color, it brings to life a subsidized housing complex in New York City. The story focuses on a ritual: Every evening at six, people peek at each other through their respective windows, each person religiously using binoculars and telescopes. And if one of the peekers decides to wave to someone new, there will be hell to pay. The pop comes in the last paragraph, and even then it's only in the story's final words that it truly comes into focus. "Peek" is constructed like a Rube Goldberg machine, with the surprising effect of an O. Henry ending.
Beckman also uses scatological humor to expose deeper aspects of humanity. "Help is on the Way" features a woman who's made her third call to an emergency service company. The woman lies naked on the bathroom floor with her arm stuck in the toilet drain. The operator keeps questioning how she found herself there. The story's dialogue dynamically delays revealing the reason for her predicament, which creates a humorous tension—one best experienced by reading the tale. Like many stories in this collection, the ending casts a bright light on the human condition.
Often, Peek's most humorous stories depict games being played between characters. For instance, "Who Knew?" features a stalker who discovers he's being stalked by the woman he is stalking. In "Bob," a woman is having an affair with someone who has the same name as her husband. When she's confronted about the situation, she acknowledges the affair and then continues to joke about sleeping with everyone on the block. As a result, the truth gets buried in lies and she gets away with her infidelity. Beckman's language games are also wildly on display in "Sister vs. Sister," where two nuns box on the paved playground of Our Lady of Blood Parochial School. The nuns are surrounded by a cluster of nuns, or as the narrator ponders, "a gaggle of nuns." The narrator and his wife stop and watch the boxing match:
"Do you think they make a habit of this," Elaine asked.
"Check out the superior look on the one sitting," I said.
"Do you think they do this religiously?"
As the nuns pun-ish each other, the two onlookers employ ambiguity and homophones to entertain each other while on their nightly walk.
Beckman not only artfully depicts his characters but engagingly plays with our expectations. He uses connotation to set up the reader's expectation and then twists the story into something completely unforeseen. Consider, for example, "Planned Parenthood," which, ironically, has nothing to do with the clinics.
Mom lit a Pall Mall and blew smoke rings that had a bluish tint. We both watched them pass by me and she said, "We didn't plan for you. You weren't wanted."
"But Mom," I said. "I'm twenty four and it's my first day home on leave from Iraq—why are you telling me this now?"
Those are the first words of the story. The mother continues to apathetically express a lifetime of disappointment while her son comes apart at the seams. Her voice does all the work. She resembles the unsexed Lady Macbeth, filled from head to toe with poisonous acid. There is nothing redeeming about her. She is villainous and two-dimensional, and you can't take her seriously. Beckman's black humor is so dark and over the top that you can't help but laugh. The story continues with her calmly chain-smoking and explaining that the narrator's older brothers were planned for but that, "You just happened and ruined our plan . . . You're the reason your father eventually ran off." The narrator asks if any of these things make him less her son. She responds by blowing more smoke rings. The son responds according to psychological laws of realism. He feels real and his responses are appropriate. It's this tension between black humor and realism that fuels this book and provides much of its emotional power.
Peek is packed full of jokes and games, but this doesn't mean the book should be taken lightly. Beckman uses these forms and techniques within the challenging confines of a few sentences to get to the essence of his characters. The book is as much about perception as it is about seeing. It's not the object that the reader cares about, but what the perceiver does with that object. In "The Most Gorgeous Daughter," the narrator fantasizes about his next lover while visiting his mother at a home for the aged. He sees the elderly women, applies a method, and perceives their daughters. "I'm trained—my mind's eye is fine-tuned. I don't have to get off on old women. It was their daughters I was undressing," he explains. It reminds me of Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., where the quixotic protagonist chooses fantasy baseball over reality. "Sometimes, I never pursue, I just do the exercise. Who has time to complete every fantasy? Besides, I love the exercise."
Tapping into the emotional core of his characters, Beckman's collection is a pummeling fistful of raunchy tales full of humor, anguish, and odd personalities. He taps into a certain corner of the human mind, those quick but entertaining thoughts that break the monotony of the day. Why create these Rube Goldberg fictions? To give us something we can look at. Why use dirty language and black humor? Because civility makes us dull. Why create massive games? To momentarily leave behind simplicity of the daily grind.