Some books are so good you can’t talk about them without babbling, so good you know you’ve found a new favorite author when you’re done, so good they put your brain in a blender, in the giddiest way possible, and all you can do is marvel at the writer’s imagination. I will try not to babble when explaining why you should read Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts, but I may gush just a bit.
Read it for no other reason than meeting Arthur Roth, otherwise known as the inflatable boy. “Pop Art” is not the strongest story in this collection but it sticks with readers and inspires people (like the ones at those links). In fact, Joe Hill often makes it part of his signature for this book (witness). The first line is, “My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.” His name is Art – get it? We snort because we understand the author is being playful with us, then we keep reading and realize Hill is using the other sense of Pop Art, the Warhol kind, the kind that challenges the form without being cute.
And Art is not cute. Hill is playful, but he doesn’t toy with the reader. Hill writes “Pop Art” earnestly, he writes the guts and heart into it that Art himself doesn’t possess. The strangeness puts us as readers on notice, wakes us up to the plight of the narrator in a way we wouldn’t if Hill wrote it straight. The irony is, if the narrator’s best friend wasn’t inflatable, we might gloss over how hard his life is. Without a plastic kid, we might miss the gems of truth.
In a friendship, especially in a friendship between two young boys, you are allowed to inflict a certain amount of pain. This is even expected. But you must cause no serious injury; you must never, under any circumstances, leave wounds that will result in permanent scars.
Is that culled from a short story with a ridiculous hook – what the artsy types call “High Concept” – or is it from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany?
That’s the beauty of Joe Hill’s writing; he’s got the chops to make all the oddities hit home. Here you’ll find deep character studies, more High Concept affairs, hypnotically grotesque dreamscapes, and homage to Kafka. What you won’t find is a dull moment.
But fair warning, Joe Hill can terrify you if he wants.
I could highlight the stories to skip if you’re easily spooked, but where would the fun be in that?