184 pgs. | $16.95 CDN
You don’t have to read very far into Andrew Sullivan’s All We Want Is Everything before you begin to get a sense of the world you’re going to be introduced to. “Good King,” the first story of the collection, opens with the following line: “Big Red was elbow deep in dead pigeon when he heard the crack like an ice-laden branch splitting from the trunk.” Already, we see a man trapped in a messy situation. Already, we get the sense that things are going to get worse. Already, we begin to realize that this story isn’t going to have a happy ending.
Andrew Sullivan’s debut collection of short and flash fiction is a heavy but graceful exploration of how the downtrodden and forgotten attempt to escape from their own forms of oppression, and how they desperately fail, again and again.
In “Good King,” Big Red is sent by his boss to clean up after a deadly altercation in the warehouse where he works, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Big Red himself is not without need of some cleansing. A series of memories of past Christmases reveals an increasingly unsavory past, and at the end of the story, as Big Red begins to hum Christmas carols with “his old T-shirt still dotted with pigeon guts,” working to scrub his old co-workers blood off the ground, it becomes clear how captive he is—a man carrying so many burdens of his own, and still put to the task of cleaning up after others.
As is common with writing that lingers on the lower rungs of social class, Sullivan’s fiction is really about the ways people become trapped—either by other people, their environments, or by the flaws that hold them back again and again.
In “Crows Eat Well,” a man released from prison on parole finds it difficult to escape from family, from the person he had been before, and from the actions that landed him in trouble in the first place. When an emotional homecoming leads him to physically attacking his father, he is failing to break free from that world yet again, this time literally giving up his chance to escape to a better life.
After the character’s assault, his brother flees, and the character’s final words encapsulate his literal and figurative imprisonment: “I used to run like that. You should have seen me.” In these words are a faint reminder of what was, what could have been, and an acceptance of what will never be again.
Sullivan works with a more literal form of entrapment in “Cloud,” when a town is plagued by starlings that come in high enough volumes to make the sky “go dark when they rose together in flight.” A young narrator describes the effects of this phemenon in a way that seems to encapsulate Sullivan’s manifesto for the collection: “Everything is covered in shit.”
The young narrator and his friend Jimmy attempt to build a machine that will use fire to drive the birds away, but after Jimmy learns of his mother’s new relationship with the local gas station attendant, he vandalizes the station and pedals away from town with both middle fingers raised high, leaving the narrator alone to cope with a home that is fast becoming a ghost town. The narrator is trapped, alone, with no hope for escape, saying, “I look up into the sky above me. Everything is black and the wings go on forever.”
All We Want is Everything is appealing and admirable not because it elevates the broken and decayed, finding the holiness in these dark spaces, but because it presents things as they are, unapologetically but artfully. It does not necessarily try to elevate, but to gracefully articulate the struggle, the vast hopelessness of it all.
There is a dark, biting humor, too, that seems to linger beneath the surface of stories like “Self-Cleaning Oven,” where a woman’s inability to have children is made worse by her husband’s infedelity with his ex-wife, with whom he already has a child. After each miscarriage, Harriet’s sisters ask her “if she had read the books they gave her. The ones about sleeping on your back for all nine months and eating only cucumbers or avocados.” There is a humor to Harriet’s exaggerated reaction to the situation, although the story is not a happy one, as Harriet’s attempt to escape is “driving until she finds a desert,” a place that is as barren and empty as she feels.
These common themes and settings are heavy throughout the book, almost to its detriment. At times, the collection reads like a cycle of settings—warehouses, ruinous cities, dilapidated bars—and a shuffle of very similar characters fighting, lying, gritting their teeth and try to make sense of the chaos around them. These stories are heavily structured, precisely placing readers in unfamiliar and often seedy environments, deftly showing readers in varying ways the ties that characters are fighting against, and then cleanly closing with an ending that isn’t quite a resolution, but rather a cold acceptance of life.
Readers are dipped into each story, stuck with the grime of that particular frame and then popped out and into another. In that sense, Sullivan’s book reads like a string of vignettes that seem very close to connecting with each other—each characater a potential cousin, maybe, who grew up in the same neck of the woods.
All We Want Is Everything is darkly funny at times, graceful at others and gritty throughout—a good read for those who are interested in the way people ruin and trap themselves, and the way they learn to cope with a world that is reluctant to help.
Justin J. Brouckaert is a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina, where he looks forward to teaching literature and reading for Yemassee this fall. His flash and micro fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Whiskeypaper, Squalorly, The Molotov Cocktail and Thrice Fiction, among other journals. He tweets @JJBrouckaert and talks to his toes at jjbrouckaert.tumblr.com.