“Everything [is] linked together in funny, sad way.” This comes from “The Magnificents,” the narrator describing a magic act by a neighborhood kid. But it’s an accurate description of Tom Howard’s Fierce Pretty Things, winner of Indiana Review’s 2018 Blue Light Books Prize, too. This collection, sardonic from cover to cover, is as funny as it is sad. The characters that occupy the pages of Fierce Pretty Things are remarkably human. They make mistakes; their lives are undesirable. Howard doesn’t shy away from them toward compromising situations, their missteps often leading to disaster. But still, in almost every situation, they find humor. They keep the light on, keep pushing forward. “Hey,” Hildy tells her brother in the dystopian “Hildy”, “you can eat me if you got to.”
This collection is particularly special to me and to The Masters Review, as “Hildy” was selected the winner as our Short Story Award for New Writers back in 2015 and I was the slush pile reader who nominated it. It’s such a pleasure to see “Hildy” in this collection among seven other equally tragic and moving stories. Throughout this collection are characters who’ve accepted their situations in life, who have accepted the fact that they are unsavory or helpless or distasteful, and penned by a less skilled writer, this would spell disaster for the collection. But Howard has skillfully evoked genuine sympathy for these characters, without pity. “I’m tired of it,” the narrator of the collection’s titular story says. “I don’t want to be who I am anymore.”
Fierce Pretty Things is draws inspiration from George Saunders, especially Saunders’ early work. This is no clearer than in “Bandana” and “The Magnificents.” In “Bandana”, the narrator’s father pushes him to join a group of bullies called the League of Scorpions – his father, a bully himself, pressures him by saying, “Sorry I didn’t realize you were so unexceptional and locking in ambition.” And in the narrator’s attempt to gain entry to the League of Scorpions, he gets himself killed. The rest of the story is spent following his ghost as he attempts to make amends for his mistakes, or as well as he can. Wesley, the boy who killed him, says, “You’re gonna haunt me till the end of my days then,” and the narrator replies, “I’m not gonna haunt you. I just need to make sure you don’t kill yourself. My soul’s filthy enough.”
In “The Magnificents,” perhaps the most stylistically different story in the collection, Howard adopts an abbreviated voice that recalls the narrator of Saunders’ “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” The narrator is detached, uninterested in the affairs of others. “Threw up,” he says after a night out. “Think [the dog] ate it, not sure.” But this selfish disinterest begins to evaporate as the narrator takes stock of his life. On his list of resolutions to improve his life, he includes “Take [the dog] for more walks,” and “Learn French.” But last, he lists “Bond more with Margot and/or Phillip.” And it’s in that and/or that Howard declares the narrator’s true character. This list isn’t one to take seriously. He can’t even decide which of his kids to connect with— and has decided for himself that there’s only room for one in his life. It’s easy to see, then, why his kids find no value in his life. Phillip calls and says his daughter needs expensive prosthetics. The narrator finds his opportunity to make everything right. He signs up for “early retirement” in which he is euthanized for a maximum payout for his kids receive his payment. But before it’s too late (or maybe it was always too late), the narrator discovers the truth. “I knew Kady wasn’t real,” he tells Phillip, and Phillip says he’s not sure why he’s “wasting his time hating your guts and waiting for you to die.”
It’s the kind of gut-punch Howard delivers over and over again in Fierce Pretty Things. His characters move toward rehabilitation and a reward they perhaps haven’t earned only to fall just short. It’s an exhausting kind of pain Howard deftly wields in a collection that only covers 134 pages. Individually, nearly every story in this collection, which itself won an award granting its publication, has won awards: the Indiana Review Fiction Prize; our Short Story Award. The Robert and Adele Schiff Award from Cincinnati Review. The Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction from Bellingham Review. The Willow Springs Fiction Prize and the Rash Award in Fiction from Broad River Review. It’s clear that Howard has a winner mentality, quite unlike that of his characters.
Publication Date: March 1st
Publisher: Blue Lights Books
By Cole Meyer