If there’s one resounding message to be found in Josh Denslow’s debut collection of stories, Not Everyone Is Special, it’s just that: Not everyone is special, but enough people are and Denslow has created a world filled with winners, losers, and everyone in-between—each with their own engrossing stories and each told with the care and precision of a master storyteller. From the weird and fantastical, to the broken and mundane, these tales run the gamut of genres, but all of them have the undeniable quality of heart, humor, and unbridled passion for something more.
The protagonists of many of these short stories are almost always in some odd predicament when we find them; ranging from the quotidian to the bizarre, Denslow shapes each entry with deft precision and each story is startlingly fresh and new. By alternating between seemingly normal tales with systematic (yet thoroughly interesting) problems and scattering others throughout that incorporate elements of magical realism and fantasy, Denslow keeps his readers guessing as to just what might happen in each story—and the end result is something pretty extraordinary.
One of the funniest, and most interestingly crafted stories in the collection is titled “Bio.” In this story, the reader follows the main character, Peter Frumpkin, only through his sporadic and hilarious bios usually found at the end of each published story in literary journals. Frumpkin starts out as many young writers do: with big dreams and high hopes for his literary future. Eventually, his personal life begins to fall apart and Denslow shares these funny (and often touching) updates through more bios along Frumpkin’s timeline of published works, such as:
Peter Frumpkin’s stories have appeared in numerous online and print journals. He currently lives on a couch in his front room and has been unsuccessful in his attempts to get his dogs to curl up with him.
The end result of this technique is a meditation on time, the unseen world behind published words, and the inner workings of the creative mindset; it also makes for a just plain-fun and enjoyable read.
Another standout story is titled “Punch,” which follows a young man who lives in a world where its citizens are allowed a certain number of “Punch Vouchers” per year that allow them to hit another person as hard as they want without fear of legal ramifications. But once a person is out of vouchers, they are also out of luck when it comes to violence. Enter the Underground Punch Market, in which our main character becomes a central figure. He has a number of unused Punch Vouchers and with few enemies, is encouraged to become a “puncher-for-hire” of sorts. He trains and becomes quite an adept puncher, but his own personal life and issues of love and honor begin to encroach on his newfound work. Throughout the story, Denslow has such clever and hilarious turn of phrases that do a great job at keeping a reader invested in the story with visceral imagery, such as “I found myself sleeping on my sister’s couch, which was like a pile of rocks covered with paper towels,” and “His breath smelled like a sink full of dirty dishes.” The resulting story is both empathic and engaging.
One of the best stories that exemplifies Denslow’s knack for extruding the raw emotion from the seemingly quotidian is titled “Mousetrap.” In it, we follow the protagonist Mark, who is surrounded by death from all angles: he works for a funeral home picking up lonely dead bodies from homes, thinks constantly about suicide, and just seems to embody the whole notion of death itself. Mark lives in his sister’s basement and the two have a somewhat strained relationship. By the start of the story, Mark has pretty much decided to kill himself, but as the story goes on, we get a deep look into Mark’s mind—into his soul—and begin to understand the real unadulterated pain he experiences. Not one to underthink anything, Mark decides to build an elaborate “suicide machine,” much like the board game Mousetrap that he and his sister enjoyed as kids, that will kill him when someone tries to open the door to the basement where he is living. A particularly interesting scene happening within Mark’s head can be found as he considers a purchasing the items for his suicide machine at a Home Depot:
I’m convinced the cashier will look at me strangely. In fact, I’m nervous to approach the counter. But this is the shit they sell. These are Home Depot wares. Every cart must look like a terrorist plot. The rotund cashier grabs a scanning gun from a plastic holster and proceeds to exterminate everything in the cart. I wonder if her dour face would show emotion if each time she shot an item, blood squirted onto the conveyor belt and across the selection of candy bars and gum.
In the end, the reader will be surprised just how much life and emotion Denslow has willed from a story so saturated in death and gloom.
Not Everyone Is Special is definitely special. So special, in fact, that you will find yourself constantly rethinking many of Denslow’s stories in your mind days later. Between the dark and melancholy, and the unassuming humor and heart, these stories are startlingly unique and altogether wonderful. Any one of Denslow’s characters could fill a novel’s worth of plot, but these short, picaresque glances into some undeniably special individuals is a master stroke from a brilliant debut storyteller.
Not Everyone Is Special, by Josh Denslow. Brooklyn Heights, New York: 7.13 Books, March 2019. 175 pages. $16.99, paper.
Michael A. Ferro’s debut novel, TITLE 13, was published by Harvard Square Editions and selected as a “Best Book of 2018” by the Emerging Writers Network. He was named as a finalist by Glimmer Train for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Monkeybicycle, Poets & Writers, Heavy Feather Review, Vulture, Crack the Spine, Duende, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Entropy, Splitsider, and elsewhere. Born and bred in Detroit, Michael has lived, worked, and written throughout the Midwest; he currently resides in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan. Additional information can be found at: michaelaferro.com.