Demons in the Spring

I have sort of a thing about fiction author Joe Meno. Years and years ago, a friend gave me his short story collection Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, and I loved it (and much later, after a reread, reviewed it here). On the basis of my liking that book, I more recently read his novel The Great Perhaps, which I liked much less (reviewed here). Meno for me is much like Richard Powers, in that I think there’s a lot of potential there but he fails to live up to it, so far, more than he lives up to it. Having recently read and not much liked Powers’s Gain, I’m on the brink of giving up on him. After reading the first few stories of Meno’s collection Demons in the Spring, I began to fear I had reached the same breaking point with his work. The jury’s still out.

Meno’s short stories are quirky, often outlandish, and I like that. But in this collection, they seem very uneven. Some of the stories seemed half finished and some simply not good. I felt at times as if I was reading unrevised workshop material, and I occasionally thought Meno was doing the cutesy, quirky thing without the literary punch that earns you the right to play such games. These stories I found myself reading hurriedly, just hoping to get to the next (and hoping it would be a better story).

But there were some stories that I liked, some of them very much. As in Bluebirds, Meno writes often of loneliness, of people just trying to peer through the murk of their alienation and make a connection with somebody. Among them, we meet in “Miniature Elephants are Popular” the sad man made happy at last by the possession of a tiny elephant whom, for the sake of helping another person, he drives to a bad end. Here Meno may pull a bit too much of the cutesy-pie business, but ultimately the story redeems it.

In “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl,” we meet a not-terribly-likable couple who endure a tragedy and find a way through it. It’s a rare dip for Meno into something resembling realism, and he does it pretty well. It occurs to me only now that he ends the story in the way certain types of thematically similar movies that make me want to wretch tend to end, but here, with these characters, it seemed a good ending.

“The Architecture of the Moon” is a fanciful piece in which all nighttime light (including that produced by the moon and stars) is extinguished, the city reconfigures itself at random, and people wander around lost at night. The main character of the story speaks with his wandering father on the phone nightly, often trying to guide him homeward. It’s easy enough to read this as a story about Alzheimer’s and a son working to shepherd an afflicted parent through the confusing mess of it all, though it could also just be a fanciful story. There’s a simple tenderness and innocence about it that I found very appealing.

In “The Unabomber and My Brother,” Meno treats us to an unlikely juxtaposition of his burn-out brother and the Unabomber. It’s another story that has a soft, unexpected landing at the end, and I thought the Unabomber tie-in and the way in which Meno handles an emotional finish in a weird emotional-and-yet-still-detached way was pretty nice.

It’s hard to read “Oceanland” without hearing echoes of George Saunders’s various stories about theme parks in which he depicts sorrow among the shabby ruins of tourist destinations designed to — and of course failing horribly to — provide pleasure. Saunders does it better, but I thought this one was ultimately pretty satisfying.

Until I read the last line or two of “Iceland Today,” I wondered what the point was. It’s a funny, fictitious history of Iceland in which we learn all sorts of zany facts. It’s the kind of little sidebar I’d expect to read nestled in almost as a sort of set piece within one of the sorts of sprawling encyclopedic novels I tend to be fond of (as, e.g., a student term paper). But however much I chuckled while reading it, I couldn’t quite figure out why Meno had written the thing or put it in a collection instead of on a blog. He punches you in the gut with the point at the very end of the piece, and I’m ambivalent about how he handled it. This story I regard as a curiosity, neither exactly a failure nor exactly a success.

Meno finishes strong with “Children Are the Only Ones Who Blush,” which has sort of a Juno vibe to it. It’s easy enough to envision the main character played on the screen by the ever-baffled, eager-to-please, neurotic screw-up type best given life in recent years (and in Juno) by Michael Cera. This story manages to be both delightful and sort of sad, which I suspect is pretty hard to pull off.

The stories I’ve not commented on here generally left me cold or frustrated.

I made a note at one point that Meno dwells a lot in this collection on architecture and city-planning type topics. We also see action at several art schools, and if ever there was a collection about family members betraying or disappointing one another, this is it (though we do also see the occasional redemption). Of the collection’s title I can make little sense, though the wry dual-meaning (are the demons in the season or in the water?) I suppose is cute. Each story had accompanying illustrations by a different artist (hence, perhaps, the preoccupation with art schools, though the artists Meno portrays are almost all wretched folk), and some portion of the proceeds from sales of the book is being donated to 826Chicago, a branch of the student writing outreach organization Dave Eggers founded.

On the basis of this book, I’m still a little unsure how I feel about Meno’s work. I loved Bluebirds so much that the two things I’ve since read and found at best uneven have left me leery. Maybe he wrote just the one outstanding book. Do I dare risk the disappointment of buying others and confirming that maybe to be true (as, so far, I seem to have done with Powers)?

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