Jan 11 2024
QUICK ADJUSTMENTS: Charles Rammelkamp reviews a new collection of micro-fictions by Robert Scotellaro
Invoking Kurt Vonnegut in the epigraph to his marvelous new collection, Robert Scotellaro telegraphs how his micro fictions operate. ‘We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down,’ Vonnegut says.
Scotellaro is constantly jumping off cliffs, out of windows, from tall buildings, in these nuggets of fiction, all a single paragraph in length (two of the sixty-five pieces are short dialogues), gracefully landing on his feet and taking a bow after rocketing headlong toward the earth. ‘Kaboom!’, “How Onomatopoeia Saved Their Marriage” begins, a story about a retired couple, hurtling us toward a crash landing, but ‘When it came time for bed,’ the micro-tale ends, husband and wife yawning, ‘he reached a slow hand under the covers and said: ‘bam!’.
The danger in reviewing such concise tales is giving away too much. Surprise is one of Scotellaro’s many gifts, here in Quick Adjustments and in his collections of flash fiction as well, especially in this even more succinct lightning form. But take it from me, even in a story as brief as “How Onomatopoeia Saved Their Marriage” – one hundred and forty words but with a beginning, middle and end – there’s a lot more between the sheets of that explosive start and the orgasmic ending to keep a reader smiling at the sheer inventiveness of the writing.
You wouldn’t be wrong to liken Robert Scotellaro to a stand-up comic, the fast-paced, punchline-driven stories deftly landing with a satisfying sense of completeness in a minute or less. But with so much literary verve, one can’t help but think of Mohammed Ali’s famous characterization of his pugilistic style: Floats like a butterfly. Stings like a bee.
Scotellaro sets you up right from the start. ‘The sky shook the plane out of its hair,’ he starts the micro, “Viva Las Vegas”; “Metaphors Incognito” begins ‘Metaphors feel ill-attended, disabused, go into hiding.’; ‘War blasts in through the screen door and sits at our kitchen table fingering the butcher knives,’ is how he starts another yarn, personifying the abstract concept with human characteristics, more menacing than the idea. You are compelled to read on, and when War ‘slaps the table’ at the end of the story it’s like a gunshot at close range and you almost miss what War is saying.
Likewise, the middles and the ends charge the reader, for – make no mistake – these micro tales have the elegant shape of full-blown fictions, complete with exposition, complication, denouement. A high school kid who smokes dope with his buddy after school while they peruse 3-D comic books in “The Rapture Workout Video,” lusts after his friend’s sister who has ‘gone to the dark side’ and become a born-again Christian fanatic who exercises to a workout DVD narrated by a fundamentalist instructor. Testosterone-driven and pot-dreamy, the protagonist fantasizes about the sister, dreaming about joining her in her workout, ‘eager to fight off demons, kung fu the shit out of them.’ Who hasn’t been that teenager?
Or consider the hitman who spends his evenings reading to the blind in “Exterminator.” ‘I love to watch those dead eyes light up at the sound of my voice,’ he tells us. His blind audience seems to thrive on the fictional tales and newspaper accounts of the very kind of violent details that make up his ‘day job.’ Maybe it’s because his dad always shut him up when he was a kid, we learn, but now, reading Moby-Dick to his rapt audience, ‘I can see Ahab bellowing, fierce-toned and welcome.’ We see his whole life in a single paragraph, not only how he has landed where he has landed but also the forces that drive him to do what he does. And whoops! Spoiler alert! I seem to have given that one away. Or have I?
Scotellaro doesn’t simply tell stories, though; at times he makes subtle commentary on social trends. “Diversity Takes, What We Can Only Hope, Is a Vacation” portrays a world in which people ‘try to speak in tongues, but can’t. Poets write all the same poems and memorize, recite them ad nauseum. Every house and apartment is equal in every detail.’ This is not a far cry from the world the likes of Ron DeSantis and his ilk seem to envision. There is not a scintilla of political diatribe, punditry or scrutiny, however, but when we read about the pages from the Kamasutra taped to the walls, ‘miracles of bodily mechanics,’ only to learn that in the real world everything has been reduced to missionary style, there’s no mistaking the point he’s making while making us chuckle.
The title Quick Adjustments gives away the jujitsu of Scotellaro’s delightful style, sprouting those wings as he tumbles through the air after plunging impetuously into space on his quest for an organizing principle to make sense of our fictions and our world. As Kurt Vonnegut says elsewhere, ‘There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.’ Or along the lines of Robert Scotellaro.