Man, I love prompts. I really do. I think they can lead you down some wild paths, creatively speaking (and maybe literally, too, if you lose all touch with reality as some will and start walking). But don’t take my word for it, read Shake Away These Constant Days (Jersey Devil Press, 2012) by Ryan Werner. See, he started this collection on a really simple premise, write each story based on a song. Here, Werner himself explains, in acknowledging those who prompted him: “All of these stories are based on songs, most of them suggested by writers and musicians from around the world. Without them, there is no book.”
To be fair to Werner, though, it’s his real knack for conceiving a story that allows the work to really flourish as narrative. For one example, he has a story inspired by Bjork. I have a slight bias here. Someone suggested to him my favorite song of hers, “Hyperballad.” There’s so much there to mine in terms of its lyrics, and there’s plenty of room for certain other forms (not the least of which being humor) that seem to belie Bjork’s original intent (or maybe not? I concede it’s hard to know with Bjork). So in comes Werner to please me with his exploration of the idea in a new and, yes, humorous way. His protagonist throws things from the mountain, let’s them topple downward with a weird sense of necessity, almost compulsion. It might be emotive, but we aren’t privy to that. And where Bjork’s lyrics are intense and there seems some kind of battle with one’s own sanity afoot, Werner’s protagonist is calm, collected, and simply knows the task that needs doing. Throw things off the side of the mountain.
“Focus” opens with these lines, to give you some sense of what I mean: “Every morning I go to the edge of the cliff near my house and throw something off. It’s always something small, washers and bolts from the garage, an empty bottle from the recycling bin.”
And while no, literally, I did not go down any wild paths. Figuratively? Yes. Shake Away has got them in spades. In “When There is No Road,” a Beowulfian barfighter who is slowly showing signs of wear and age, and who is on the cusp of losing something far more potent than the physical strength he’s always possessed, more significant that his numbers of “wins” and “losses.” Or JFK’s not actually having been killed in “Back and to the Left” — he’s just had enough of the presidential grind, everyone wins, Jackie, LBJ, “… even America got what it wanted: a tragedy to unite it.” In “Let’s Go Shoot Her While She’s Crying,” the female producer of a soap opera, so completely a part of the mechanisms of her craft, perhaps born to be a part of them, even, that she herself is an affected mechanism, like the psychopath, understanding the notes of human behavior but failing to grasp how the music is played. The ending is so perfect it’s not one of those things you can articulate with words, not without removing its potency. Just read it!
And then, probably my favorite of a lot of favorites in this collection, “The Vikings.” The story centers on a man paid, and only paid, to keep two ostensible billionaires (or at least multi-millionaires) alive. They pay him only for keeping him alive. That’s his one job. He also can’t leave before the job is done, or it’s more than a little implied, they’ll kill him. As you might imagine, the two men, Wade and Ricky, live lives rife with recklessness and things meant to induce an adrenaline rush, at the very least. You can imagine the moral dilemma that a character in the shoes of the protagonist would arrive at. Complicating the problem? These two guys just won’t die. I couldn’t help finding symbolism in this, even if there’s no need to read it any other way than straight up. But yes, the notion of keeping two extraordinarily people alive and they’ll give you a great deal of wealth? Seems like a good metaphor for the old American infrastructure. Right? But just don’t forget at any moment they can, you know, take it all away, if you’re not living up to your end of things, right? And I don’t mean to reduce “The Vikings” to that, but I thought I’d share. Thought I’d make everyone uncomfortable with my political views and thinkings. I blame Ryan Werner. I’m certainly not taking responsibility for my own thoughts, attitudes. No sir.
Now, If I could be allowed to rant slightly off topic for a quick minute, I imagine there are those who MIGHT call this collection something idiotic like “uneven” — which just means they liked some stories and felt differently about others. Go to hell if you’re one to say that. Every story collection has stories you don’t like, or like less than others, bare minimum. Every story collection has stories you consider “weaker.” The next person who complains, for example, about George Saunders’ Tenth of December having too many stories in which narrators speak weirdly — and that this is off-putting — will make me take out my stabbing fork. Saunders has an idiosyncratic style that, it just so happens, he’s able to pull away from some when he feels like it, or some mysterious force prompts him to. Well, Werner, though different from Saunders, just so happens to do the kinds of rangey things really talented writers do. End of rant.
That’s to say he does a good job of inhabiting spaces. places and things. Maybe intuiting how they’re supposed to be or who knows what makes it all make sense. It does, though. These stories creep inside the souls of their protagonists and whoever else. Things get fleshed out nicely. You come to know them well, and in a very short time, too.
Also, how about the title? A good note to end on. Seriously. Good titles deserve their due. So do great titles. This is a great title. Shake Away These Constant Days floats delicately off the tongue and down to earth. The whole thing makes me happy. I recommend it to you.