John Goldbach loves the dark. That is, if the amount of time his characters spend in it is any indication. When they aren’t partying in the woods in the middle of the night, congregating in donut shops and bars with no electricity, or navigating blacked-out suburban streets to get to a babysitting job, they generate their own darkness – temporary unconsciousness – by choking themselves or each other.
Consequences aside, it takes a hell of a lot of confidence to choke oneself to the point of blacking out. Fittingly, Goldbach’s debut collection, Selected Blackouts, is written with a hell of a lot of confidence. The majority of the stories have a voice that’s sure and a style that’s as relaxed as it is mesmerizing. Raw, vivid descriptions abound. “What looked like vomit or beans or blood was sporadically streaked along the long log benches circling the firepit.” It’s hard to look away.
The highlight of the collection is a sequence of three linked stories, “Blackout”, “Blackout II”, and “Outside the Auditorium”. “Blackout” begins with the splendidly unsettling scene of eight high school boys choking themselves in class until their heads hit their desks, out cold. Pertinently, Goldbach portrays the tedium of small town life that produced the outburst in the first place, following Dave and James, two of the boys suspended from school for the antic, during an unsupervised day off.
The apocalyptic “Blackout II” is the collection’s best story. Dave and James emerge again, this time during a sweeping blackout whose origin and scope are unknown, as even the radio has fallen silent. In a candlelit donut shop, one old man claims with the kind of confidence only hours of speculation can produce, “All of North America doesn’t have power,” and that terrorists have “dickered” with the power grid. Dave and James react to the information by heading to the bar next door, to see if Kurt, the bartender, is willing to serve them beer despite their underage status. Goldbach’s pacing and style are masterful in this story, neatly balancing an ominous atmosphere with the pleasure of diversion. “Blackout II” gains momentum when Dave and James find a purpose for themselves in the dark: borrow/steal a generator from a ramshackle drunk shack in the woods to run the bar’s juke box on, because, as Dave notes, “Music would be good right now.”
Blackouts, self-imposed or otherwise, are unnecessary in “Outside the Auditorium”. Darkness is provided by the night, in the middle of the woods, at a bush party in the vicinity of the aforementioned drunk shack, owned by a wild man named Quick. While alcohol and drugs are never in short supply throughout Selected Blackouts, consumption finally crests here and the most feral elements of nighttime surface. That’s feral elements as in a goat gets slaughtered in the woods by a wild man who owns a drunk shack that the local kids like to party at. Again, it’s hard to look away.
Good thing it’s so dark.
Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Spring Training” won first prize in the 5th Annual Geist Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest and appears in the current issue of Geist as well as at www.geist.com