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Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories
Richard Butner
Small Beer Press, 64 pages

Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories
Richard Butner
This is Richard Butner's second chapbook after Mind Snakes (illustrated by Michael Carter, Barefoot Press & The Paper Plant). His stories have been published in RE Arts & Letters, Say..., this a cat?, Problem Child, Scream, Mind Caviar, and the anthologies Trampoline, Crossroads: Southern Stories of the Fantastic, Intersections, and When The Music's Over.

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A review by Matthew Cheney

Let's say you have a cousin, a cousin who is a writer, a snobby writer, a writer who claims science fiction and fantasy "can't be literature" (whatever that means) and spends all his time rereading Proust. You -- being ornery, being combative, being mischievous -- want to prove to your cousin that, though there may not be an SF equivalent to Proust, there are, at least, a few writers digging for grub in the streets of the genre-fiction ghetto who are as skilled and serious about their art as any other contemporary writer.

Richard Butner's Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories would not be a bad gift for that cousin, nor would it be a bad gift for anyone who appreciates carefully constructed short fiction. It has been published as part of an ongoing series of chapbooks from Small Beer Press, one of the most consistently excellent small presses in the United States. The series has brought attention to writers whose work tends to dance across definitional boundaries, writers who don't stick to one particular mode of writing.

Within Horses Blow Up Dog City there are two stories that are clearly science fiction and three stories that are (at the very least) implied fantasies, tales of ambiguous rationality where funhouse mirrors hang from the doors of perception.

Various readers will find different things to value within these stories, and will value different stories more than others, but to my mind the collection begins with its best work: the title story, first published in Intersections (an anthology of stories from the Sycamore Hill Writers' Workshop that Butner co-edited in 1996) and "Drifting", first published in 2003 in the 'zine Say.... The first story is science fiction, the second surreal fantasy. Both are models of what short fiction can accomplish.

"Horses Blow Up Dog City" sends us to a future that is not exotic or surprising to readers who spend considerable time watching TV and surfing the net. It is a world where electronic images rival reality, where every picture moves, where art is all about marketing and existence itself is mechanically reproduced. The protagonist here is a man named Hanes, who owns a junk shop full of expensive retro chic, and who is saddened more than he might have expected by the strange death of his sometimes-friend Grover, an immensely popular performance artist. Grover walked into the desert and died, escaping handlers and managers and reporters and fans, reclaiming the scraps of whatever was left of his identity by ending up in a place where voices and images drift away in the dust.

This isn't Grover's story, though, but Hanes's. After Grover dies, he haunts the world by appearing on all the channels and on all the lines, projected into every broadcast and transmission by a group of Belgian infoterrorists (or merry pranksters), creating the effect of real life without the actual life, so that in the end Hanes goes to Oz (that is, Sydney) in search of ancient computers, but before he leaves, he gives in to everything and buys a busted "video poster" that obsessively, habitually plays a looping ten-second clip of his friend whose body lies burning in the sun.

I said this story was a masterpiece, but before I count the ways, let's note the other masterpiece, "Drifting," which is equally affecting, equally precise in everything from sentences to scenes, but less brooding, more wistful and humorous. Herein we meet a man who wins a Zen Mistress in a contest. She arrives, tells him that "Time is an element, and nothing is real," and then proceeds to prove it, dismantling all the details that add up to the disaster of his everyday life.

No single element makes these two stories what they are; rather, the elements joining together creates a harmony greater than the parts, like chamber music for sleepwalkers. Offhand details about minor characters let those characters seem to be as richly portrayed as main characters in novels. Careful dialogue reveals much through suggestion while seeming to state as little as most casual, unscripted conversations do. The sentences are carefully balanced in their rhythms and intonations, making them remarkably easy to read, but also resonant, a gorgeous juggling act of image and exposition.

These are subtle stories, yes. "Muted" is how this style of writing sometimes gets labeled, but that's too passive an adjective -- this is writing that is evocative rather than declarative: it evokes, through careful diction and structure, connections and possibilities in the reader's mind, so long as the reader is attentive. It's not difficult to read, it's not a puzzle or a game, but is instead impressionistic, and so it needs an audience open to impressions. Where other writers would veer into sentimentality, would try to manipulate the reader's ideas and emotions, Butner does something more sophisticated and respectful: he creates patterns and spaces where imagination can blossom.

The remaining three stories in the chapbook are well written, engaging, and thoughtful, but they were either too ambiguous to be deeply meaningful to me or not as evocative as the first two stories, though I suspect other readers would feel differently, depending on mood and proclivity and weather.

"Lo Fi" (first published in this collection) is an amusing story of an actress who conquers the world by diversifying, and a world that is perilously interactive. It is told as short monologues from various personalities involved in the events, and it reads like the script of a TV show of talking heads. It's fun and full of invention, but some of the satire is heavy-handed and the conclusion seems more like a stop than an end.

"Ash City" (first published in Trampoline, also from Small Beer) is a kind of deal-with-the-devil story that has some original twists on the idea and ends up with a dream that may be more than a dream. Despite all its interesting details, the story itself remains little more than another tale with the devil in it. (An acne-ridden devil in a fading red suit, though, and motor oil on his hands.)

"The Rules of Gambling" (also original to this collection) is an excellent piece of work, surely one of the best stories of this year, about probability and chance, yearning and nostalgia, greed and habit. A man with a tragedy in his past meets a woman who can predict the future, and together they watch football games. Everyone could be a ghost, a drunken delusion, a memory hatched from aching desire. If I didn't find it quite as marvelous as the first two stories, that is only because it seemed a little too easy in the end, a little too tied up. Closer to sentimentality, closer to a fable with a lesson. A beautiful story nonetheless.

As are they all, really. Beautiful enough to be good fodder for that pesky cousin. Finely wrought fiction that earns its effects. Evocative and passionate, meaningful and filled with wonders. They're not Proust, no, but these stories are undeniably excellent.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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