This is How He Learned to Love by Randall Brown

Was it the intention of Randall Brown or his publisher to make a statement by putting the word “stories” on the cover of This Is How He Learned to Love (Sonder Press, 88 pages)? I don’t know. Of course, it’s a convention to tag book titles with explanatory genre labels such as “a novel” or “stories” or “a memoir.” But Brown is a particular case. He is a prolific and expert writer of flash fiction as well as the author of A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. He also writes longer forms (see his novella How Long is Forever), but it’s not unreasonable to think of him as “Mr. Flash,” one of the chief exponents of the form in America.

So the label “stories”—instead of, say, “flash fictions” or “microfictions”—for a collection in which 32 of the 37 pieces fit on one page, while the others fit on two pages, makes me wonder. Is the writer refusing to be pigeonholed? Perhaps he is saying, in effect: Let’s just call them stories. Deal with it.

And surely this makes sense. Categories not only describe, they can also distract—or even worse, they can negatively determine. For instance, what is deemed (safely) publishable, or appropriate for acquisition by libraries with tight budgets, or worthy of coverage by book reviewers.

Brown is no stranger to this conversation, and has tweaked it on earlier occasions. His collection of prose poetry I Might Never Learn is not markedly different, stylistically speaking, from his flash collection Mad to Live, at least as far as I can tell. And in A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction, he provocatively takes Anne Sexton’s poem “Young” and reformats it to make it appear, quite plausibly, as an example of flash prose.

In the end, the vexed question of genre matters less than the substantive reality of words on the page. Here is “Anything at All,” in its entirety:

Kipper, our King Charles Cavalier, wakes me up with “Cheerio!” In the afternoon he asks for tea and crumpets, calls me “Guv’nor.” It’s been that way for the past three days, since the wife and kids left for Santa Domingo without me. It’ll take awhile for me to adjust to the new medicine, a last chance before some kind of institution, no shit. It’s come to this. Somewhere my wife backstrokes with her parents in an infinity pool, the chef serves them a holiday shepherd’s pie, the kids float in the ocean, wave to cruise ships. I’m a million miles from them, in winter, out by the covered pool and dead trees, the King Charles chasing doves while someone sings “Feed the Birds.” I’m scared, terrified. “Wish me luck,” I say to Kipper. “Bugger off,” he barks. I have to keep the anxiety at bay, accept uncertainty, stop fleeing and hiding away as I did as a kid in a world I couldn’t control. I see worms, or is it grass, or is it an old acid trip, aneurysm, stroke or nothing, nothing, fuck. Don’t try to make it stop; don’t push the panic away. Accept it. Let it in. Okay. All the birds chased away, Kipper leaps on my chest, stares at me. He has such a small head. All fluff, like Winnie the Pooh. He curls up and falls asleep in the crook of my neck. I want a head like that, I say to him. I’d give anything for it.

This piece is fairly representative. The reader finds humor and a sense of the surreal. An emphasis on family, with the simultaneous attraction and tension that it entails. And a psychological interiority that is both self-aware and vulnerable. (“I want a head like that.”) The story is funny but it is not an exercise of wordsmith whimsy. It contains terror, restlessness, the eternal problem of being at home in the world. All in 253 words.

Other stories are similarly rich. “Our Last Fishing Trip,” “Well” and the title piece, “This is How He Learned to Love” address questions of illness and aging within the family unit. “It Doesn’t” and “Boxing Day” shift the focus to geopolitics, crystallizing moments of self-awareness brought about by travel, when assumptions about what is normal begin to wobble. A few pieces explicitly address literary tradition: “Moments Later” dips into creation myth, and “Myrtle” revisits The Great Gatsby.

Such range gives this slim volume considerable heft. Brown delights in testing boundaries, and reminds the reader how much these limits are permeable. This is How He Learned to Love is imbued with a sense of possibility, which makes it, even when the subject matter turns grim, fun to read.

This last point is worth lingering on. In writing this review, working on my drafts, I hesitated about using the word fun. Would it strike the wrong note? Would it in some way misrepresent a serious, artful writer?

But such questions are frankly perverse. Brown reminds us that serious fun is no oxymoron, and it can be a welcome antidote for much of what ails us. It is not didactic or full of easy pieties. Rather, his stories render an intimate world of emotions alongside unpredictable and crackling speculations. Perhaps he is saying, in effect: Let’s just call it life. Get on with it.

Charles Holdefer, author of Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots, 2019

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