ONE MORE NUMBER, six surreal stories by Craig Rodgers, reviewed by Alan ten-Hoeve

I first read Craig Rodgers’ stuff last spring when Death of Print resurrected his 2019 novel, The Ghost of Mile 43, from the ashes of Soft Cartel. The hopelessness and misanthropy of that book acted like a counter pressure to the pandemic malaise that had me wanting to sleep the rest of my days away. Though I was far from alone in my feelings, Rodgers’ distinctive, observational tone that bleeds an acute disinterest in modern existence felt like it was specifically speaking to me. So I jumped at the chance to check this new one out.

Music or musical instruments are part of the connective tissue that make up this collection as much as Rodgers’ unmistakable voice of the voiceless style. All six of the stories are populated by people running from something or looking for something or both. The entire book has a murky feel to it that puts an unforgiving lens on the minutiae of movement, perception, and dysphoria to bring the tension to an almost unbearable level without giving an inch, even when you want it most. It’s noir, but without the stylized vernacular. Rodgers’ lack of pop culture, brand names, slang, or historical markers to propel a story or add unnecessary significance renders the landscape even more bleak. Everything we know loses shape once we enter these in-between worlds. It disorients us, giving us nothing to latch onto for comfort, just like his characters. A deft literary metaphysical refraction at play that makes one feel like they’ve unwittingly become part of the Rodgers matrix. All the major plot points, if there is such a thing, are felt within the interactive exchange between writer and reader.

In “The Trumpet Man,” a traumatic shift in a man’s life distorts or reveals, depending how you’re predisposed to interpret it, a familiar world in the late stages of decline. The main character, Silas, reminded me a lot of Shaw, the exile from Ghost of Mile 43, who loses everything, casts off his life and society like a dirty pair of socks, and takes up residence in a decaying ghost town. But instead of trying to disappear from everything and everyone entirely, Silas wanders his burning world, directionless, until he finds himself on some sort of bizarre, half-hearted quest to either return a musical instrument to its rightful owner, or learn how to play it himself. Whichever comes first. All the while being haunted by a man in a fine suit who has a bigger hand in the state of things than we or Silas realize.

“Going Home Again” is one of my two favorites from this collection. In this tale of desperation, a man receives an upsetting phone call that causes him to empty his bank account and abandon the life he’s built in order to return to his childhood home and the memory of an old man who plays the accordion on a pier. This story is followed by “King Bronislav,” my other favorite, which stuck out as it has the closest thing to a standard plot of all the stories. In this one, Calvin Lond, a “finder of things lost,” who is possessed with a love for his Oxford shoes, is tasked by a mysterious individual with locating a centuries old violin. Like most things in life, the job seems relatively simple at first—the violin is supposedly located in the basement of a house in the “primordial suburbs”—but when Calvin arrives at his destination, he finds, in a darkly comedic exchange with a foreman, that the home hasn’t existed for some time. From there he is sent to a scrapyard, then an auctioneer and a jail, but each subsequent step Calvin takes proves to be just as slippery as the last.

“Our Featured Performer”is the shortest and, in my opinion, the most poetic piece in this collection. It describes an unsettling scene of a banjo player anxiously plucking out his somber music to a crowd he cannot see. It kinda reminded me of the Charles Mingus song “The Clown.” Accompanied by a cheery, improvised narration by Jean Shepard of A Christmas Story fame, the song tells the tale of a clown who tries to please everyone to his own detriment. Like Migus’ song, Rodgers brilliantly leaves the fate of the sad, obsequious banjo player up to the audience. Willam Morris sends his regrets.

I have to admit that, at first, I found myself wanting the stories to unfold a little faster than they did—some phrasing I found tedious and unnecessary—a symptom of my internet reading habits, no doubt, but once I fell into the grooves Rodgers carved out, I didn’t want them to end. Craig Rodgers is one of those writers who can make pouring a glass of water seem deep and ominous, and leave us wanting more. Overall, relating to the lost and hopeless characters who inhabit this world was easy. I enjoyed this book. Plain and simple. It’s a good book published by a press that consistently puts out solid stuff I believe will resonate with many.

While One More Number picks up on the themes Rodgers left off with in Ghost of Mile 43, these stories branch off into different, but equally dismal territory. What reeled me into each piece is how Craig can get something across by simply implying. I feel Rodgers’ skill as a story teller really shows itself in the way that we can absorb different insights and meanings from these six Cimmerian tales of woe.

One More Number, by Craig Rodgers. Death of Print, October 2021. 132 pages. $13.00, paper.

Alan ten-Hoeve lives in New England. His book Notes from a Wood-Paneled Basement (2021) is available from Gob Pile Press ( Twitter @alantenhoeve.

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