A stranger comes to town. We know this story, don’t we? He warns of approaching danger, which the townspeople ignore. And because we are familiar with this story, we know the tale will not have a happy ending for most. The stranger—crazy or haunted, ill and raving—is right.
Brian Allen Carr’s Motherfucking Sharks is a willfully horrific and lyrical exploration of the tropes normally associated with westerns. The problem with worn out plots, of course, is that they remain tired until a writer like Carr—energetic and inventive—comes along to smash every preconceived notion. No character exists in one dimension; no description is expected. Take, for example, this moment following a rainstorm: “The sun plows the clouds to nothing. The blue of sky like a sheet of life the fiery coin of the sun just clings to. It is there, casting rays that warm the puddles which sit stagnant and bored in their sockets.”
The book begins with a stranger, Crick, who arrives in unnamed town with his mule, Murm. Crick travels endlessly to warn of sharks that “fall as rain, as spores in the drops, to land on the land, and emerge from the wetness … These dastardly creatures are made to kill and fit with some magic that enables their swimming through the same air, the same air we now breathe.”
With the town listening, Crick explains that he witnessed the death of his wife, his parents, and his young son long before—they are the skulls he carries around in his carriage, along with “harpoons and nets … the naked jaws of sharks, their multitudes of teeth chipping and chirping.”
Unfortunately, Crick is seen as a lunatic by the townspeople, and sent to the jail. Brothers Scraw and Bark take control of Murm, leading the mule to be slaughtered for stew. But when Scraw is tasked with the killing, he finds himself unable, and instead murders his brother.
The novella, broken into nine sections, contains many scenes in which madness enables people to behave as they would not otherwise. Carr includes the story of Tim, a young horse thief from the neighboring town, who has been imprisoned and sentenced to death for his crime. Moments before he is hung, a shark attack begins, which allows Tim to escape. He hides with his sister, Tilly, in a barn. Knowing that death is approaching, Tim confesses his one regret: that he is a virgin. Tilly, aware that outside “shivers of sharks swim rampant through the trees and streets gone red with the spilled human blood,” obliges her brother’s advances. In the uncomfortably intense and descriptively rich scene that follows, the brother and sister have sex while outside, “the sharks are chomping a bad-murder music.”
At the jail, awaiting the inevitable rainstorm and carnage, Crick encounters Kinky Pete. The man is so called for “the gnarled backbone that swerved and twisted down away from his skull.” He discovers that Scraw has murdered Bark after eating a particular batch of “mule stew” that contains plenty of meat, but no mule. “I dropped bowls of Bark … to the poor families,” Scraw explains, “but I don’t know if that means they’re part of Bark or if Bark’s part of them.” Kinky Pete soon dispenses of Scraw.
Outside, the rain begins: “Armies of drops fall, swelling the streets with impromptu rivers. The roofs cast sheets of rain from their lips like waterfalls. The thunder booms. The lightning strobes. The music of the falling rain hisses.”
The sharks are coming. To give away the rest of the plot would ruin the experience of reading Carr’s novella. It is at times thrilling and beautiful, and other times so gruesome and violent as to be unpleasant. Readers may be drawn to the audacious title or the bright, graphic cover; they may even see the masterful skill in Carr’s writing about violence. Days after finishing the book, I remain troubled by the story and my own enjoyment. I have more questions than answers.
Yet this seems to speak to Carr’s central concern: the grimy and uncertain morality that arises during times of crises. No one is a hero in this tale, not even Crick, who ostensibly wants to save people’s lives. His story is more complicated: his search for his dead son is driving him mad; the skulls he carts around do not, in fact, belong to his deceased family members.
But what do we make, afterward, of these sentences that twist and churn into syntactical masterpieces, or shock us with their directness? Take the character of Mum, for example, facing the assault of sharks: “She thinks: I bet it is a man, this shark. She thinks: I’ll spread my legs at him. With legs heaved open, Mum lays her head back, and a wild, electric lust spreads over her.” Likewise, how can a reader reconcile his or her enjoyment with the image of a baby attempting to suck its thumb, when its thumb has already been eaten by a shark?
Who are we, ultimately, to be reading a book called Motherfucking Sharks? What does it say that I miss the book already—the hypnotic rhythm of the sentences and unforgettable characters that kill and fight and fuck without reservation?
“Picture for me, if you will, the child you love the most,” Carr demands during the book’s longest stretch of violence. “Hold it in your head. Dress it with the form you’d least like to see killed. In this way, we have always been a team. I tell you a thing, but you spin it real in your head:
… We’re a team, okay? We’re going to kill this little kid together.
Kill this kid with me.
Put it in your mind and let’s kill it.
Just you and me.
… I want this all to occur inside of you.”
Motherfucking Sharks, by Brian Allen Carr. Lazy Fascist Press. 124 pages. $9.95, paper.
Brett Beach studies and teaches at Ohio State University, in Columbus. His fiction is forthcoming in The Normal School, The Hopkins Review, and Mount Hope. He is currently at work on a novel.