Just as the term sounds, a “whack-job” is defined in the urban dictionary as: 1. A Person for whom failure is so consistent that they are slowly driven into madness. 2. Someone who partakes in unbelievably odd behavior that a reasonable human would avoid. 3. An extremely erratic or irrational person.
The ten stories in Bonnie ZoBell’s neat little collection are full of such characters, and as the term further suggests, the characters and the tales are darkly comic. Because these are flash pieces – brief narratives that are over before a reader has time to get too emotionally involved – they are not really “tragic” stories, but tragedy hovers over them, menacing as a thundercloud, ZoBell subtly teasing out the ghastly implications with the skill of a gifted storyteller. Often as not, though, there is a redemptive detail at the end and not just imminent doom.
Take the first story, “Nonnie Wore No Clothes,” for instance. Nonnie is the very definition of a whack-job girl. At the start of the story, we encounter Nonnie sitting naked in front of the water-stained wall of her living room. A pipe has broken somewhere and it’s damaging the house, but all Nonnie sees is a vision of the Virgin Mary in the pattern of the stains. Whack-job! Her teenage son Antonio bursts in and finds her, horrified by the sight of his mother naked on the floor. As the story unfolds, we learn that yes, Nonnie is indeed unstable, and she may be deemed unfit to care for her son. He may be taken away. As readers, we do not want that to happen.
“The county worker’s coming tomorrow,” Antonio said, “to do an inspection. If we don’t fix the place up, I don’t know what’ll happen to me.”
Nonnie stood quickly. “I’m a good mother.”
“I know you are, Ma. But we gotta clean. I’ll go start in the bathroom.”
In the upshot, moved by her sign from the blessed Virgin, Nonnie puts on her clothes, throws away the vodka bottle she has stashed in her bedroom, rolls up her sleeves. She pauses one final time in front of the Virgin, “long enough to see two last tears roll down the panes of her face.” There may be a happy ending after all.
And then we laugh until we cry.
ZoBell has a gift for matter-of-factly showing details in a scene, without commentary, but in a way that nevertheless reveals the implicit shabbiness or melancholy surrounding the whack-job. In “Deep Sea Dive” we see Sharla’s husband Frank trapped in the sleeping gear he uses for his sleep apnea, trapped also by the demons of his psychosis, and Sharla no less trapped by the guilt she feels about her husband. In a very literal way she is trapped under the mound of their housepets that lie on the bed with them. “But if she moved a single limb, she’d disrupt the entire world.”
In “Serial,” a similar sad couple watch a police re-enactment program on television, a pair of whack-jobs bonding after work.
“How was work?” I ask during a commercial for diarrhea medicine, then one for better erections, then one in case you’re depressed, then one about a law firm that will sue just about anybody you like in a class action suit.
After the commercial break the cop show resumes with commentary on couples who are involved in torture. “The intimate thrill of performing the torture together becomes a sexual aphrodisiac.” The story closes with Rich and his wife, the couple in the story, in bed together, their hands all over each other.
Story after story features these sad but endearing people leading bleak lives: a maid working the midnight shift in a hotel while studying anthropology, summoned to clean some unexplained diarrhea off the walls of some guests’ bathroom; a financially insecure pet-store worker who accidentally kills her pet dog while making love with her boyfriend; a mom who works as a telephone sex worker to make ends meet, much to her daughter’s embarrassment. Whack-jobs, indeed, people squeezed by their economic and social circumstances to the breaking point.
ZoBell brings us right to the brink of the breaking point, without pushing us over the edge. Perhaps that’s the secret of “The Writer as Rapist,” in which characters in a story being written by the (whack-job) protagonist and characters at an art colony get confused and blended together. When will the break point be reached, and will we recognize it when we see it?