(“shuckerwinkles,” “ladyskins,” “doodlehusks,” “pappy peels,” “redcaps”): Worsted by Garielle Lutz

Review by A. E. Weisgerber:

Worsted by Garielle Lutz. Ann Arbor: Short Flight/Long Drive, 2021. ISBN 978-0-9964949-2-2 $16.95. A collection of 14 new short stories in 215 pages.

I like Garielle Lutz, a lot. All the things I love about texts (humor, sentence-level games, apt diction, conspiratorial voice) are present. I could never presume to sum up what it means to be Lutzesque, but if you want a perspective on it, Brian Evenson’s introduction to The Complete Gary Lutz which came out in 2019 from NEW YORK TYRANT is a good starting point. I like how that volume completes Gary, and now, with Worsted, Garielle has stood up and stretched at the starting blocks.

Excerpt from the Evenson introduction to 2019’s The Complete Gary Lutz

It’s hard to express why Lutz’s writing is so important and necessary. I think fans of Thomas Pynchon might know this feeling.  To the very attentive, Pynchon’s writing is very funny. His characters are fully formed, with imaginations and personal histories, families, careers and faults, always on the move.  The same, on a micro level, can be said for Lutz’s characters. These grimy heroes groove with small, signature tics over 30-page constructs: they twitch, or scratch, or stare. They carp. They fret about bathroom locks. On a novel scale, Pynchon’s characters hop in taxis and sweep through whole cities adrip with inside-jokes, wisecracks, hearts-on-sleeve, and brand-name details over the course of 500 pages. Lutz’s characters are the wallflowers, the snoops, the mall-tutors on lunch break who blend into the scenery. Speaking of scenery, I like how in the first pages, the text instructs: it “was a city full of buildings with plenty of entrances easy to miss.” Yes, there are a lot of entries into the craft of Lutz. Linguistic club doors whose bouncers dictate entry, based on taste.

I also recently taught Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the first time, and I think those who like the challenges and rewards of that type of meandering narrative (or spiral? explosion?) would also appreciate the short stories of Lutz. Don’t look too hard for a plot; you’ll forget to smell the characters. Which reminds me:

Some fun things that caught my attention here and there in Worsted were when a sentence begins in an expected way, and then kind of veers off absurdly. For example, “My eyes tend to water a little when I know I won’t be caught,” or “I never got good at spreading things thin.” And this gem: ” One hand may wash the other, I mean, and both hands may wash the face, but the shoe is always on the other foot. ” LOL what is that even? It’s like some instigator throwing static my ear as I read.

Another general observation how the text is mostly single-syllable words. It’s like taking mincing steps on ice. One is careful to keep eyes down, and the going is slow.  You must concentrate. You are literally sentenced to these sentences.

I also think it’s important, esp. when approaching Lutz for the first time, to recognize Gordon Lish’s tactic of consecution, where everything tails out of the opening sentence. Amy Hempel does this, too. I think Christine Schutt does it.  These are all writers whose work I love. If you are aware of this technique, the text takes on an intellectual dimension akin to problem-solving, wherein every new sentence becomes a solution to what precedes it. I think this helps one appreciate the temporal gutters that crop up as Lutz’s characters move from room to room, work to home, chair to table. This is the effect of thought branching from thought. The text sums it up nicely with these lines: ” you can’t keep a double life from getting itself halved and then halved again,” or “all I’m doing is just fishing deeper and deeper in my pants pocket for my keys,” Keys, baby. Keys.

Brian Evenson’s great observation, how Lutz’s language attenuates thought, is also a good guide for understanding this text. For instance in the opening story, the narrator is critically listening to a cleric at a wedding, who goes on and on about the happy couple. The narrator quips: “count again.”  Now, that might be shorthand of the narrator (who’s a little corny). It might be telegraphing “Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched,” but the effect on me as a reader is, did I just catch a wink? Did Lutz walk me that far out on a limb of thought? *Queue Chuck Jones drop noise in five seconds.*

It took me a super long time to write this review, mostly because at the time of my request there were only PDFs available for ARCs, and I just do better with paper copies. I can fill them with notes on envelopes and napkins and marginalia as I go. I can remember things better and notice patterns and relationships better when I have spatial memory to help. Also, with Covid and the beefed-up demands of work, my clock needs 28 hours. It’s just been a bad couple of years of plugging away and feeling poorly about ignoring my own writing practice. I’d read some of the book, and think about it and dream about it, but then wake up and grind out another day doing other things so a lot got lost. I’m sure some readers of this review can relate.

Here are some notes from when I first started reading it last spring:

It begins with a priest in the first ¶, who gets the narrative laser-eye. (Later in the book, we’ll be reminded of Lutz’s laser-eye when the car-driving protagonist gets into a staring contest with two teenagers sitting in the back of a station wagon facing him, and says: “I visited my own stare upon them—a stare that cored, you best believe,” and I mean, that’s comedy gold.)

Then there’s a Doroth, who’s missing her Y, so maybe that means she’s an XX. There’s a lot of slippy gendering happening, which adds interpretative interest to the text.

But I don’t know that that’s the sort of review this book deserves, anyway. Lutz is a specialized genre of writing.

Aside: What I wanted to do was make this review a diner place mat (lol I’m sorry, ‘tray liner’) with games and stuff relative to the book and what Lutz was up to, you know, words I learned (Tatterdemalion, styptic, and filliped). In the title story, the narrator is seated in a diner and observes, “The place mat was entitled Brain Teasers, and at the center of it was a cartoon drawing of a smiling, large-jawed, wax-mustached, chef’s-hatted chef scratching his chin, and arrayed around him was an aggrievement of puzzles, mazes, scrambled-word games, illustrated riddles. None of these were of muchinterest to me.” I thought the ideal book review for this collection would be on such a placemat. I thought I’d have time to actually make that, and have a one-off copy made (you know, a pad with like 50 tear-off sheets).  File that under road-to-hell ragrets.

Here’s one more closing thought on Worsted. It’s a pleasure read. There’s a chart that shows the lethal doses of everyday things.  (See below).  But when it comes to sentences, and the joy of abstract problem-solving, there’s no limit. Have all the Lutz you want. Is it good for you? Hah hah I don’t know — De gustibus non disputandum est! But it’s not the worst. And, I just love that title. It’s a cool book and I’ll probably buy a print copy to revisit and enjoy. Take my money.