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Bewildering Stories

Paul Beckman, Peek

reviewed by Alison McBain

Author: Paul Beckman
Publisher: Big Table Publishing
Date: January 22, 2015
Length: 120 pages
ISBN: 0990841324; 9780990841326

When I find an author I love to read, I will follow their writing from their first release to their latest. I enjoy seeing the progression of ideas and related themes that keep on popping up in an author’s work, and seeing how these ideas evolve and change over time.

However, sometimes I’ll find the newest book by an author and start reading my way backwards to their first works. The process in reverse is even more interesting, I find. Especially for a writer like Paul Beckman.

I recently reviewed Beckman’s book Kiss Kiss, and it was full of outrageous and funny flash fiction that covered a wide range of topics. Afterwards, I cracked the cover of his previous book, Peek, also a collection of flash stories.

Sometimes going back through a writer’s published works, the writing can be rougher or less developed. Not so with Peek. It’s full of the same humor and pathos as his latest collection of stories. It might even be more outrageous; certainly, it’s not less.

Many of the stories are written in first person from a male perspective with occasional forays into third-person or the female perspective. Peek begins with a story of the same name, about a man who secretly stares at a woman at the building across the street from him. This is considered an acceptable practice by the residents of both buildings, who like to live their lives in the open and be watched as if on television. The woman puts on a good show for her secret admirer, eventually asking him via a held-up sign for his phone number, even though she’s never actually seen his face. The ending explains that he’s conflicted, since the woman is his ex-wife.

This was a good twisted story with a twist ending, and a great way to start off the collection. Many of the stories are similar, circling back to catch the reader unawares. Some of them are vignettes and allow a brief and vivid glimpse into moments not usually illuminated in fiction. Several follow the married and dysfunctional characters Mirsky and Elaine, who also show up in Beckman’s later book Kiss Kiss, and they are always good for a laugh. There are also a few experimental and magical realism pieces thrown into the mix.

A sampling of story themes include: a man who puts soap on his mother’s grave for revenge, an adopted child returned to sender as defective, an invisible woman who wants to be a cop, a woman with her arm stuck in a toilet, a boy’s conversation with God about help with his homework, a guy who collects belly button lint as a hobby, a man whose cat is possessed by his dead mother, two nuns in a backyard brawl, a national competition between mimes, a neighborhood polka party, a woman who loses her posterior, and a woman who finds comfort in getting a replacement mom to nag her when her own mother passes away.

The idea of subjects being taboo is thrown out the window, just like Beckman’s other short-story collections. Nothing is off limits, and many ideas that seem like they would step over the line are instead hilarious.

That’s not to say there aren’t serious pieces, as well. Some themes that surface in this collection are adultery, abuse, poverty, racism, dysfunction, disease and death. While these ideas are sometimes handled as comedy, many times the negative aspects of life are presented in a stark picture of reality.

Beckman shows us brief snippets, both light and dark, about the human condition. While only some stories will make you laugh, all of them will linger.

Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always provocative and pushing the envelope, the stories in Peek are well worth the read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Copyright © 2018 by Alison McBain

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