How Best to Avoid Dying
Owen Egerton
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Buy *How Best to Avoid Dying: Stories* by Owen Egerton online

How Best to Avoid Dying: Stories
Owen Egerton
Dalton Publishing
192 pages
June 2007
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Rarely do stories complement each other so well as in this bizarre collection, which is at once darkly tragic, hoarsely satirical, exuberantly hilarious, and deeply moving. Egerton’s art is driven by a playfulness which rings throughout all these gems, but it far from undercuts the serious. The variety of genres in this volume, from traditional short stories to blistering flash fiction, fairy tales to self-referential annotations, are all peppered with an abundance of moods and attitudes. The stories strike you with horror, form lumps in your throat, and make you smirk. This assortment of style, form, and tone demonstrates Egerton’s considerable versatility. And as plated here together, kicking, whirring, and giggling, they make a multi-faceted medley which lingers on the tongue, leaving a bittersweet aftertaste.

Egerton begins with a short absurdist tale about a spelling bee, in a world where such competitions decide the ownership of land masses and the losers, intrepid 8-10 year olds, are dropped into a pit below stage where the audience can watch them slaughtered. Other stories include a Christian camp where counselors encounter fatal “accidents” in twisted attempts to drive the campers towards a life in Christ; an account of a married couple’s tepid romantic life and the deeper sexual ambitions and desires embodied in a talking, knighted penis; a look into the life of Lazarus, resurrected by Christ and now living in the modern day, desperate to die; and a girl who niggles the narrator to not kill her off, which closes the volume on a note of poetic gorgeousness. And these are the more traditional ones.

One story, “Holy,” is a sparse paragraph. “The Beginning of All Things” is a two-page story about rodents fighting for a Snickers bar that turns into a prose poem creation tale. “The Adventures of Stimp” morphs into a series of run-on sentences, almost stream of consciousness, which portrays absolute devotion between a hamster and his owner. As a whole, these shorter pieces aren’t as good as the longer ones. They are excellent examples of Egerton toying with narrative form, always original, and brilliantly carve a small but powerful piece of art in miniature. However, several of them lack the emotional depth of the longer works, and they all are missing a sense of roundedness—minute details injected into the narrative that both flesh out the universe of the story and greatly contribute to its power to move.

These details are subtle and quiet: ornamentations of a master’s hand. In Egerton’s hands, they may be lightly whimsical or deadly serious; in either case, they are some of the finest proof of Egerton’s capabilities. Far from feeling tacked-on, these details are weaved into the fabric of the fiction, as Egerton plays with his worlds and our minds. One such detail is a description of looking in on the agonized faces in private hospital rooms, “like looking deep into a radiation chamber, knowing that if you open the door—even a crack—all that radiation would zip out and scar your eyes, throat, and skin.” With this brief, almost passing note, the whole of the protagonist’s relationship with sickness and disease in the antiseptic desert of the hospital is revealed. In “Spelling,” the point that America lost Hawaii to Korea in a spelling bee is again mentioned in passing, evoking both chuckles and a sense of terror: in a single line Egerton has given us all we need to know about the politics of this nightmare. Other cases are more light-hearted elements of comedy that show why Egerton has been considered by so many to be an excellent humorist.

If these details describe Egerton’s delicate manipulation of narrative, there are just as many examples of immense linchpins: single lines on which the literary value of the story is hinged, which launch the text into the realm of works truly memorable. In such cases, the delicacy is replaced by hammering immediacy, and our hearts and minds are surrendered to the work. In “Tonight at Noon,” perhaps the best story in the collection, a jazz enthusiast wakes up to find his girlfriend has committed suicide. He says of jazz virtuoso Charles Mingus, “Most people say The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is his best, and it’s good. But Ah Um is going for more. It hurts more. Lives more. Jenny is dead.”

These examples may serve to show the incredible sense of balance present in these stories, which may ultimately be what makes them so successful (there is only one exception to this: “The Fecalist” is boring satire—a departure from the usually sophisticated presentation). Comedy and tragedy are bound inextricably; passing jabs, lasting one-liners, and poetic passages are joined by their poetry; whimsy, heartbreak, and joy are merely different sides of the same thing. The stories, in their individual components and as a collection, build off one another with grace and ease.

If a philosophical point is permitted, this playful balance and duality may be the essence of what Egerton calls how best to avoid dying. The characters in these pieces, who are never mere tools of narrative, are all faced, in one form or another, with the agony of dying and the beauty of living. Or is it the other way around? Laughter and sorrow, fear and joy—these may all be the same entity—and assisting that interpretation may be Egerton’s primary objective. If this is in fact the case, barring some minor, unmentionable imperfections, he succeeds with dazzling brilliance.

[Author website:]

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Max Falkowitz, 2007

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