Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Review: The Mustache He's Always Wanted but Could Never Grow by Brian Alan Ellis

While I was reading The Mustache He's Always Wanted but Could Never Grow at work, someone asked me what it was about. I told them it was a short story collection about drunken losers. That's a pretty good summary I think.

The stories all feature people whose lives are on the brink of falling apart, are falling apart, or have completely fallen apart. All of there stories are related with a dark and dry sense of humor that keeps things from getting too depressing.

Things get off to a strong start in the first story "The Crumbs of Love". A struggling poet tells his girlfriend how he feels about her, only for her to take the opportunity to remind him how stagnate his life is, and how close to the end their relationship is.
"You write about how all love sours, then you expect us to be together forever? Forget it. What makes us different from anyone, huh, Harry?"
A simple yet sad story that sets the tone perfectly.

Ellis continues in this vein in the next story "Eulogy for Johnny Thunders". Another melancholy story about a loser and his broken relationship. After splitting with his girlfriend, his life falls completely apart. He finally puts it back together again, only to have his beloved cat (who was living with his ex while he was homeless) die. He finds having to deal with his ex and her mother almost as painful as the loss of his pet.
Part of me wants to believe that Johnny committed suicide. I'd like to think that having to deal with Phoebe and her mother for so was just too much for him. I know it sounds silly, but that's the only comfort I have. 
The theme of losers having the last of their comforts taken away is explored again in "Jerry's TV". The narrator's neighbor, Jerry, has his TV stolen. It was all that Jerry had left, and he can't afford to replace it. The narrator tries to help, but realizes he has nothing either, so there's not a lot he can do.

My favorite story of the collection is probably the last one, "The Sailboat/Hatchet Painting". A man recalls the days with his former roommate and his sister's ex-husband, an awful painter named Gerard.
"Isn't funny," I said. "Our conversations, as sporadic as they are, tend to always revolve around Gerard? In fact, I've often thought of him as the glue holding our relationship together all these years."
"God I know," she said. "Except it isn't funny. It's sad. It's very sad. It isn't funny at all."
Not all of Ellis's stories work. "Loco Mask II" is a story about a man with an Oedipus Complex. It's forgettable and Ellis pulls off a similar subject much better in a later story called "Rosewater". The titular story is an okay prose poem, but just seems like a summary of everything that's been written about up to that point. In fact, the longer stories tend to be better than the flash fiction. I say this as someone who thinks flash fiction is a very underrated writing form.

Overall, The Mustache He's Always Wanted but Could Never Grow is a solid collection of sad short stories about sad people with sad lives. I would recommend this book, especially to fans of Charles Bukowski, Noah Cicero, and alt-lit in general.

Buy The Mustache He's Always Wanted but Could Never Grow by Brian Alan Ellis here.

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