Alex McElroy’s chapbook, Daddy Issues, consists of seven short fiction pieces, and each story tackles the role that boys and men play in their families and in the world, paying particular attention to the relationship between fathers and sons.
By opening the chapbook with a story in the form of a flowchart, McElroy expands our notion of what fiction is and what it can do. “The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart” is—perhaps unsurprisingly—heartbreakingly sad but it is also very funny, with unexpected twists and turns. Some of the best moments occur when, instead of the standard “yes” or “no” flowchart box, the character responding to the flowchart provides their own answer, occasionally in the form of a question or a rebuke. But this is undoubtedly a short story—with a clear narrative arc—and it made me realize that flowcharts lie under most fiction. McElroy has drilled down to the story’s essence. And that feels just right, especially for a story about the death of one’s son.
Some of the stories, in their use of detail and their lack of sentimentality, recall Jayne Anne Phillips’ early, groundbreaking work in Black Tickets. Memory and its fallibility often come into play. One of the strongest pieces is “My First Memory,” a micro piece under 300 words. The first-person narrator recalls his first memory with a pitch-perfect combination of specificity and haze.
I am two years old, possibly three, and my mother has her hands in my throat. We’re at my grandmother’s house. In the living room. The carpet is a smoky gray color. The walls, too. No, they’re more of a yellow. Like nicotined fingers.
As the narrator sharpens and refines his memory, the perception of the child and the understanding of the adult do a dance, of sorts, through the memory. The present tense works wonderfully to underscore the immediacy and the import of the remembered moment.
McElroy’s language is always precise; one senses the attention he’s given to the sonic quality of each line. Every one of these stories starts with a first sentence that draws the reader in, that makes us want to read on. “Popi to Life” begins as follows: “String Hayes was waiting in line to pick up his corpse.” (I dare you to put this story down after reading that line.) And then, in a perfect segue from the possibility of magical realism to realism, the story continues: “He was a lanky kid, smart and largely disliked at Blake Elementary.” And it is the shifting back and forth in this piece, from realism to magical realism, that gives the story its emotional weight. I was reminded of what Manuel Gonzales has said of magical realism: “So for me, the trope only works if it affects the real world, obtains its own gravity, is something real and tangible and affecting.” The final image in “Popi to Life” is one that stays and haunts.
The title story “Daddy Issues” closes out the chapbook. A list story, written in the third person, the piece nicely opens out at the end to a first-person plural voice. There are moments, early in the story, that are reminiscent of “The Things They Carried,” as we cycle through different fathers and their unique issues:
Worker worked as a crossing guard and Worker was struck by a bus.
Worker was found trapped inside a machine.
Worker fell from a cellular tower.
Worker was hit by a door.
Adam Hayes killed Arabian families with the click of a mouse.
Jeffrey Sterling leaked secrets to the press.
Here, as in a number of these stories, the title works as it often does in a poem, helping to crystallize the meaning and to collect the disparate images. Just when we might tire of the list format, the narration shifts to a new, almost Biblical voice and, finally, to the voice of the sons of the fathers. The story ends with a list of questions, interrogating the relationship between father and son. This ending so beautifully brings us back to the start and to the opening story, representing the cycle that is the relationship between fathers and sons.
Publisher: The Cupboard Pamphlet
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Reviewed by Laura Spence-Ash