book review

Turning ‘bad ideas’ into cutting satire

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Fiction writer Brock Clarke likes to take “very bad ideas” (his words) and push them to their limits.

The “bad idea” behind his best-known novel is right there in its title: “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.” And the result was a scathing satirical masterpiece.

Equally bad ideas propel his new short-story collection, “The Price of a Haircut.”


Why does the Bowdoin English professor find bad ideas so inviting?

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Because he’s a cockeyed moralist drawn to hot-button American social issues — racial tensions, domestic abuse, military quagmires — the way a tongue is drawn to a canker sore. His default mode is absurdism because, as he wrote in a recent author’s statement, “absurdity is often the best way to fully appreciate how very bad our very bad ideas really are.”

How bad can a bad idea get?

In the book’s title story, it leaves you squirming.

“The Price of a Haircut” opens with violence straight from the headlines, as the killing of an unarmed teenage boy by a white policeman — the 15th such killing in five years — leads to a race riot. Inquiries into the cause of the riot naturally follow, and within a page or two it’s being blamed not on the killing but on a barber who “said something racist” while giving someone an $8 haircut.


The story is narrated by a white male collective “we,” and their main reaction after hearing this news is: “Wow . . . Eight-dollar haircuts.”

That price is too good to pass up. Still, because they think of themselves as “right-minded, left-leaning, forward-thinking men,” they need to mask their bargain-hunting as an exposé of “how very awful it was at the racist barber, how we’d had no idea how severe the problem was.” By getting their hair cut there, they may be morally compromised — but even this has its upside.

“[I]f, as someone once said, to be human is to be compromised,” they declare, “then we were feeling very human indeed.”

A similar twisted logic informs most of the other stories in the book. It works best in Clarke’s longer tales where he has room to spin persuasive variations on self-defeating behavioral patterns.

In “The Misunderstandings,” a couple’s embarrassingly public acting-out of their bitter marital resentments is oddly interpreted by restaurateurs and their fellow diners as a kind of performance art. In “That Which We Will Not Give,” a wife’s Thanksgiving demand for a divorce from her husband becomes a fondly shared piece of family lore at all their subsequent Thanksgiving dinners. Only after the children have grown up and bring their spouses home for the holiday is a key question raised about this oddly nontraumatic anecdote.


Marital troubles are also the catalyst for “What Is the Cure for Meanness?” Narrated by a teenage son who has great sympathy for his soft-hearted mother and keen resentment of his verbally abusive father, the story saddles the youngster with a painful dilemma: “I don’t know how to sound like my mother, and I don’t know how not to sound like my father.” Things get so perplexing for him that he starts to wonder whether there’s “no such thing as a real voice.”

The blatant artifice of these stories’ premises works because Clarke has such a good ear for the rhythm of confrontation. His starting points may be nonsensical, but in the repetitive circularity of the way they play out, there’s a perversity that seems all too recognizably human.

“Our Pointy Boots” — another story narrated by a first-person-plural “we” — takes things to an extreme. In it, Iraqi veterans return to their hometown after one of their number is killed, but ignore their spouses, their children, and their memories of what happened in Iraq by reverting to their favorite pastime: “parading in our pointy boots around the Public Square.” The graphically described atrocity that prompts this exercise makes their “parading” look like desperate whistling in the dark.

Clarke ventures deepest into mind-game territory with “The Pity Palace,” about the jealousy that afflicts a deliberately cardboard character whose conversation is limited to a handful of maudlin stock phrases. Nothing about his situation — including his wife and her putative lover — feels real. But that doesn’t stop him from believing his pain is genuine: “What did it matter if a person was real, or if you just made them up, if either way you felt lonely once they were gone?”

Some of the shorter tales in the book — “The Grand Canyon,” “Cartoons” — are dry to the point of being arid, no matter how clever they are. But at his cynical best, Clarke taps deep into the way we sabotage or delude ourselves, simply as a way to go on living.


By Brock Clarke

Algonquin, 240 pp., paperback, $15.95

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Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic. Visit him at