Book Bag: ‘The Adventurists’ by Richard Butner; Straw Dog Writers Guild awards fellowship to Springfield writer; UMass Amherst literary festival

  • REGINE JACKSON

Staff Writer
Published: 3/24/2022 2:08:18 PM
Modified: 3/24/2022 2:07:26 PM

The Adventurists
by Richard Butner; Small Beer Press

Fantasy fiction can come in many forms, such as epic tales set in imaginary worlds like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Then there’s “low fantasy,” in which strange events unexpectedly crop up in seemingly normal walks of life.

“The Adventurists” by Richard Butner, an excellent new collection of short stories from Easthampton’s Small Beer Press, mostly falls into the latter category. Butner, who lives in North Carolina, livens his writing with wry humor and moments of absurdity and surrealism, but his stories also explore the fraying of friendships and the sense of loss that the passage of time can bring.

What also anchors the 16 stories in the collection is Butner’s crisp, understated prose, a style that lets him quickly segue from straightforward descriptions of everyday life to off-kilter narratives.

In “Delta Function,” for instance, the protagonist, a somewhat jaded sound engineering technician named Gray, returns to the small town of Poston, where he’d gone to college 30 years earlier. He’s there to record a news story about a local farmer turned artist — “a superstar in overalls” — who’s found sudden fame by making huge sculptures out of scrap metal and old machinery.

Poston’s changed, and seemingly not for the better — “It was a bigger town, sprawling further into the country” — with the bars, restaurants and other local places Gray had known replaced by chain stores and parking lots. A walk across his old college campus also makes him feel lost, with many buildings locked up, security cameras installed in the student union, and solitary students all staring at their cellphones and laptops.

But after Gray bangs his head during a fall on some wet stairs, he discovers a campus eatery where it’s still 1979: The guys have long hair and mustaches, the only beers on tap are brands like Schlitz and Old Milwaukee, and a lot of people are smoking. And up on a small stage are the four other members of the pop band Gray sang in when he was here three decades ago.

Do any of them recognize him, now that he’s bald and in his 50s?

The narrator of “Adventure” is revisiting his past, too, traveling to an island where the infamous pirate Blackbeard met his demise off the coast of South Carolina in the early 1700s. He’s come to meet a childhood friend, Virginia, the caretaker of the island’s aging hotel. It’s been awhile since they’ve seen one another, and Virginia now wheels an oxygen tank around. She used to pull a lot of pranks — is the tank another joke?

“There are some things I’m not going to talk about,” Virginia says. “This is one of them.”

Other weirdness — some of it funny, some of it not — creeps into the story. The narrator gets attacked by a belligerent goose while taking a walk, and then a kid pretending to be a pirate whacks him in the crotch with a plastic cutlass. Virginia has an old, mangy cat that looks and acts just like the one she had decades ago, when the two friends were kids. It has the same name, too: “You remember Lightning,” she says.

Then there’s the man who came on the ferry along with the narrator, the one dressed as a court jester and carrying a strange staff. Virginia tells her friend this oddball is known as Death’s Fool and is someone not to be trifled with. As they drive past him a little later, the narrator relates, “He looked over at our car and smiled. I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me or Virginia. He had no teeth.”

There’s plenty of dark humor as well in “Scenes from the Renaissance,” where main character Bob goes to see the girl he was in love with in high school. The former Shakespearean actress now is known for playing The Queen in a Renaissance Fair, where their old mutual friend, Chuck, plays the role of a jester, among other things.

Chuck’s not too impressed with Bob’s appearance, especially his casual clothes. “And you still have long hair. Please, tell me that number I dialed wasn’t a second line in your parents’ basement.” He’s concerned Bob will only spook The Queen.

Bob’s getting spooked himself. The Renaissance Fair seems all too real, with muddy peasants pulling carts by hand, fly-covered fish for sale at a filthy market, and a smell “worse than the dumpster that sat in his apartment parking lot.” And when Bob finally meets his old heartthrob, her breath, even from several feet away, almost knocks him out.

In this and other stories, Butner also takes a satiric look at modern America, from the frantic pace of life to the worship of technology. In “Give Up,” a man celebrates his 43th birthday by buying himself a “Backyard Everest” package in which he ensconces himself in a geodesic dome to climb the famous mountain virtually. It’s so real he’s soon freezing cold and forced to use bottled oxygen.

Yet for all his off-hand tone and biting humor, Butner writes feelingly about human connection and loss, and about the challenge of moving forward without losing touch with the past.

As one critic puts it, Butner “writes about the subtle losses we suffer (often without noticing) as we get older, about love and loyalty, about how the past is never completely past and can come sweeping back over you at the slightest opportunity like a tidal wave, so you’d better be ready lest you drown.”

Other book-related news

In other news, Straw Dog Writers Guild has awarded its 2022 Emerging Writer Fellowship to Regine Jackson of Springfield.

Jackson will receive a $3,000 grant that can be used for writing-related expenses, access to mentors, and for creating a professional author website, valued at $1,500 and sponsored by Valley of Writers, another area literary organization. She’ll also receive a two-year membership in Straw Dog Writers.

The Emerging Writer Fellowship is designed to support women of color and gender-expansive writers of color from western Massachusetts in the early stages of their careers.

In a statement, Jackson said she was thrilled by her selection, noting that her early interest in reading “blossomed into a passion for writing — mainly in the horror, fantasy, and science-fiction genres. I rarely, if ever, read novels with protagonists who looked like myself.”

The 2022 Juniper Literary Festival, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, returns as an in-person event April 1-2 in the Old Chapel and will feature readings and author receptions open to Five College students and members of the public with proof of COVID vaccination.

The festival, presented by the university’s MFA program for Poets and Writers, opens April 1 at 6 p.m. with readings by novelist and short-story writer Mona Awad and poet Mai Der Vang. Awad has won the Amazon Best First Novel Award and the Colorado Book award, while Vang’s newest collection, “Yellow Rain,” is a 2022 PEN America Literary Award finalist.

Events on April 2 include readings and discussions with four distinguished graduates of the MFA program: Emily Hunt, Robin McLean, Wendy Xu and Jung Yun.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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