In A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair, Steve Gergley provides several perspectives on the titular experience, including everything from epic battles between man and God in the desert to surreal in-between moments where a couple fights to revive passion while also fighting for their eternal souls. There are hilarious moments with unprofessional dentists, sorrowful moments as a family grapples with the effects of dementia, and heart-racing moments with humanity’s last hope against an alien invasion: a local rockstar unmatched in her headbanging prowess. In all thirty-two stories, Gergley never relents, even when one piece is tonally a complete contrast to the previous. The most impressive aspect of the entire collection, however, is the high note we are often left on—Gergley’s not only mapped out a primer for wallowing in despair, he’s also jotted down some tips for what to do when the time for wallowing has passed.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading Gergley’s work in the past while I was an editor for BULL Magazine. We published “Some things that happened after Derrick woke up his girlfriend at 3 a.m. to watch Too Many Cooks,” a piece you’ll find in A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair. The story, formatted as a Notes-app list jotted down in the middle of the night, follows Derrick after he receives a sleepy rejection from his girlfriend, and the dreadful stacking of all the responsibilities he’ll face in waking hours. While this story isn’t necessarily indicative of just how bizarre Gergley can get, it’s a good midpoint in the collection that familiarizes us with the type of protagonist Gergley champions: a person who, in their efforts to avoid, delay, and escape, are actually ruminating on everything going wrong.
It’s important that we see these hopeless protagonists, too—the ones who don’t get an infusion of humor or optimism. In “Red Means Go,” Gergley leans into his experience with grit lit, depicting the tragic death of a CVS employee when a man struggling with addiction botches a robbery attempt. In “You’ll Never Leave,” a person realizes a part of their body is being absorbed by their house every time they wake up. These aren’t the only less-than-positive pieces in Gergley’s collection, but by empathizing with the down-and-out working class people just trying and failing to get by, the high notes in Gergley’s other stories hit that much harder.
The intelligence of A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Depair is another plus for the collection. Many of the thirty-two stories are linked, including “Brain Debris vs the Squid Aliens,” “At Action Park,” “JB in the Desert,” and the stellar final story in the collection, “In the Garden of Earthly Delights.” The linking of these pieces promotes cohesion and allows us to identify commonalities in the other stories that aren’t linked to the larger running narrative. By including a multi-entry plot-driven story across several smaller pieces, Gergley presents an ambiguous question to us: how much of this actually ties together? And what does that mean, if each character here feels alone as they wallow in their despair, while there are so many others doing the same thing?
It’s bold to challenge pessimism in literary fiction. “Lizzy from Lake Placid,” “Cryonics,” and “Not Really a Horseradish Person” are just a few entries from A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair that feature real hardship without giving us a persisting sense of negativity that we carry throughout our day. Gergley drives this home with the ending of “In the Garden of Earthly Delights”—after wrestling with complacency and dissatisfaction, there’s more than one person who gets their shot at redemption once the disillusion is peeled away.
I’d like to digress here and note the humor in Gergley’s writing, as well. “Drilling,” which features a promiscuous dentist, his assistant, and a tongue enlargement procedure, is a sharp pivot in the beginning of the collection from the heavy material common in grit lit to the absolutely absurd—a genius choice that sets A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Depair apart from many other entries in the genre. Gergley’s organization is fluid, as the following entry, “Does anyone else have this problem or is it just me?”, slowly guides us back into more somber waters before arriving at “You’ll Never Leave,” which is equally as bizarre while remaining tonally consistent with the rest of the collection. Though Gergley’s inclusions of humor are sparse, the pieces that are so unconventional not only intrigue us—they encapsulate the entire experience of wallowing in despair, from the utterly hopeless moments to the ones where you can only laugh at how terrible you feel.
There’s much cause for concern in our world. The ever-present threat of war, inflation, and illness looms over us, even on beautiful spring days when the air is clear and the sun filters down. What I find essential about A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair is its ability to hold our gaze at these dismal fears, then force our perspective upward. After all, the most frightening aspect of wallowing in despair is the truth that one day, the wallowing will eventually, assuredly, thankfully, and terrifyingly, come to an end.
A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair, by Steve Gergley. Rochester, New York: Leftover Books, May 2022. 180 pages. $17.00, paper.
Kassie Bohannon holds a BA in Writing & Linguistics from Georgia Southern University. She was an editor for BULL Magazine for three years, and has designed book interiors for Cowboy Jamboree Press. You can read her work in Call Me [Brackets] and find her on Twitter @imnotkassie.