Knuckleheads by Jeff Kass. This one comes to us courtesy of Dzanc Books, the small press whose executive director and publisher is the above-mentioned Dan Wickett. As I started turning pages in Kass' collection, I was immediately grabbed by the first lines of the first story ("Don't Mess"):
Nobody had ever imagined cheerleaders for a wrestling team before.It's a wry, witty way to open a story and a book, and I'm guessing the collection gets even better from that point on. All the advance praise only serves to whet my appetite. Laura Kasischke (The Life Before Her Eyes): "Kass’s remarkable stories are honest, observant, utterly believable. Poignant and funny, the stories pull the reader into their vortex, where the light is pleasingly bright and disorienting at the same time. Knuckleheads introduces an important writer, one whose work I didn’t know I was so desperate to read." Lewis Robinson (Water Dogs): "Howlingly funny, engrossing, and culturally observant, these stories unfold effortlessly with ambient ferocity and compassion. By the third paragraph of the first story I knew I’d go anywhere Jeff Kass wanted to take me." Steve Amick (Nothing But a Smile): "Knuckleheads is a high-octane protein shake, equal parts heartbreak and hilarity, a thing of both sweat-reeking adrenalin and nostalgic, time-stopping beauty. Kass achieves what all fiction writers want—he makes us believe and makes us care. Even those of us who stayed as far away from the jocks as possible will want to cheer."
Certainly, nobody had imagined cute cheerleaders for a wrestling team, girls with hair styled neatly, side-swept, sweet-smelling. Girls who floated through the stench and chill of the gym like an alien fog, mystics in saddle-shoes. Confused, my teammates and I watched them, and smelled them, and were stunned by them. Nobody understood how to act because, yeah, we knew about girls--sort of--but girls who would surrender an entire Saturday, from 8am to 11pm, to clap their hands and stomp their feet at a wrestling tournament?
Nobody had ever heard of something like that.
Winged City Press in January 2010. His poems, stories and essays have been published in The Georgetown Review, Anderbo, Hobart, Blood Lotus, Barnwood, Stone’s Throw, and Third Wednesdays, among others. He has taught poetry workshops to thousands of young people in schools, juvenile detention centers and synagogues. His one-man performance poetry show, Wrestle the Great Fear, debuted in April 2009.
Reading AloudOne thing I love about a good short story is that you can read it aloud--the whole of it--and you can hold on to an audience’s attention throughout. In fifteen or twenty minutes, you can give an audience the gift of something full and complete, the entire journey.
That can’t really happen with a novel. Sure, you can read a chapter, and some chapters can even work as stand-alone stories, but if they do, then....well, there you are, you’re really reading a story, aren’t you?
I’ve got young kids, a nine-year-old and a five-year-old, and when I read to them before bed, the end of a chapter rarely leaves them feeling satisfied and they often plead for me to read more. But if I read a picture book to them for the same amount of time, and it ends, then they’re happier. They’ve experienced a full narrative. They have closure. They can go to sleep easier.
I suspect something similar happens with adults. If they go to a reading and walk away having heard a complete narrative, I think they feel satisfied in the way one might feel after eating a full meal. They know what happened, so they can head home feeling nourished by the art.
Now, granted, as far as selling books, there’s surely an argument to be made for leaving your audience hungry, but though my publisher might not be eager to hear it, that’s not really what I’m after. If I’m privileged enough to be able to read my work in public and am lucky enough to have an audience show up, I feel I should give them gift of a satisfying experience. I owe them a full tale they can digest and savor. I want them to remember my work in the same way they might remember being regaled by a good storyteller around a campfire. They might not end up buying a book based on their wanting to know what happens next, but they’re also not fish. I'm not reading to bait a hook. If people show up to see me read and sit in a cramped bookstore to do it, or at an uncomfortable stool in a coffee shop, and maybe have to deal with some poor acoustics, or the never-ceasing buzz and fizz of a foaming coffee machine, I want them to leave feeling like the commitment to come was worth the time and hassle. I want them to go to sleep sated, a little wearied from the ride, changed maybe in some small way by the journey of the story--the full journey of the story.
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If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Knuckleheads, send an email to email@example.com with "Jeff Kass" in the subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the email. This contest is only open to residents of the U.S. and Canada (sorry, we can't ship to addresses with P.O. boxes). One entry per person per book (yes, you can enter the drawings for each book during Short Story Week, but each entry must be sent separately). The contest remains open until May 31, at which time I'll draw the winners of each day's giveaway.