By Meleah Maynard
The short stories of John Jodzio (B.A. '99) are often described as laugh-out-loud funny. But to give fair warning, it’s probably mostly nervous laughter. Yes, there are laughs to be had, but they are often tied to scenes so uncomfortable to read that laughing serves as a release.
Knockout Stories by John Jodzio (B.A. '99) Soft Skull Press, 2016, 356 Pages
Like writers Judy Budnitz (Nice Big American Baby) and Etgar Keret (The Girl on the Fridge), Jodzio has a talent for crafting wacky, weird, and creepy stories that offer a glimpse into the lives of people you kind of recognize but hope never to encounter. Knockout, his new story collection, is more expansive than his previous collections, Get In If You Want to Live and If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home. Knockout is engaging—not just because the stories are well written, but because you simply must know how they turn out.
In the title story, “Knockout,” a recovering drug addict perfects the art of using a neck pinch to render humans and animals unconscious. “The giraffe was very elegant in the way it fell, slowly dropping to its knees and then gently tipping over on its side with a slight puff of breath,” Jodzio writes. Eventually, the friend his father warned him about tricks him into using his talents to steal a tiger. Things go downhill from there.
While all of the stories are haunting and populated with freaks, “Duplex,” in which a driftless man who steals and resells steaks ends up being held captive by his roommate, is exceptionally disturbing. The previous roommate, Dan, fell off a bridge—“Or maybe he jumped. He didn’t leave a suicide note so nobody really knows for sure.” Soon it becomes apparent that suicide was Dan’s only way out. But when the captive man tries to flee, his crazed roommate, a has-been bounty hunter, takes him down with a blow dart and chains him to a bedframe. “What you need to understand,” he says, “is that no matter where you go, I’ll find you.”
“Chet” starts with a description of someone dying from a bite by a sick elk. “It was a horrible death, lots of moaning and black puke and weeping styes all over his back and chest.” In “Ackerman Is Selling His Sex Chair for Ten Bucks,” a heartbroken man goes to his neighbor’s garage sale, hoping to spend a little time around the possessions of the man’s dead wife, with whom he was having a secret affair.
With heavy heart, he buys the man’s “gently used” brown leather sex chair and then pretends to faint so he can get inside the house and take some of the woman’s personal things. “The last time I shoplifted anything was in high school, but each room Ackerman and I walk through I shove something of Elaine’s into my pocket—a five-by-seven black and white of her at the beach, a fridge magnet, a dart from the rec room.” Later, while chatting and grilling steaks, the two men find that they kind of like each other.
Further along the continuum of anything-can-happen-in-Jodzio’s-world are stories like “The Indoor Baby” in which a frightened-of-the-world mother decides to raise her son completely indoors despite the wishes of her dismembered war hero husband. And “Our Mom and Pop Opium Den,” which features a narrator telling the story of how his family’s business is being forced out by a big-box opium den that has opened on the same street.
Rest assured that the remaining stories are equally as strange and inventive, and though their endings will sometimes leave you wanting, you will not be able to forget them.