If laughter is good medicine, William Walsh presents sick remedy in Pathologies.
His short collection of diseased proceedings is more than the sum of its madness. Walsh is a gifted writer, by turns astounding with sharp phrases and surprising with brief, unpredictable arcs. One way to treat this is by engaging the peculiar brilliance of individual stories; another, by revealing the choicest lines:
Emily Dickinson loved the smell of mothballs but she had trouble holding their wings.
Margaret Atwood had been arrested before. But he had never
been arrested by a police officer named Margaret Atwood.
I grow a mustache, and it looks like I left my zipper open.
“Footboy” opens the collection showing us just how ordinary the extraordinary can be, with a protagonist who chooses to do everything by foot instead of by hand. Peel an orange? Check. Tie shoes? Check. Open a milk carton? You’ll have to read and see for yourself.
Check the brothers Barthelme in “The Wrong Barthelme”. These boys give us more of what can be strange in the ordinary. They play with electric trains in their basement until their squabbling attracts the attention of mom, who brings down three typewriters and a ream of paper. In orderly fashion each receives a typewriter, gives their mother a peck on the cheek, and takes a seat at “their stations” in the row of leather swivel chairs at the ping-pong table. Still, someone’s got to pay for the chucking and damaging of trains: “Frederick must sit on his hands in front of his paper-loaded typewriter while Don B. and the other one tap away”. Unusual punishment, the more absurd for occurring in the midst of such order.
Walsh turns from boyhood delight to banana republic in “You Can Live on Lemons”, a witty entertainer playing for the tourist set—small club, late night singer/joke-maker backed by a twelve-piece band, thin-skinned generalissimo with deep acne scars—plies soft barbs against the leadership and bites lemons, reality’s bitter flag.
So much diversity to Walsh’s ink. And there’s more.
A twisted turn awaits in “Revision” after the narrator is pulled from the roiling waters at the nexus of two rivers. Dark chuckles as mom and sis add their views on rehabilitating a criminal in “The Terms of My Parole”. In “Untitled”, the protagonist’s erotic imprinting leaves Bert with a sad fetish and a hole in the bus to satisfy it. Walsh gives us a baby named Beef and a cape-wearing pacifist reborn to as a master marketer. “The Margaret Atwoods” is a brilliant little comedy about—not two but three men—named Margaret Atwood. “A Courtship Ballad” has a lot more going on underneath its sweater than a decent old-fashioned story ought to.
I could go on. These stories, each short and sweet (between 500 and 2,000 words) are a form of madness and mayhem, but above all they are fun, the natively bizarre moving to places ever more bizarre. Take “Diagnosis: Mustache”, in which an answering machine message remonstrates some lady hassling Dick Van Dyke over his late-career mustache. Later, we have a narrator in the form of a snowman on the moon.
“Switch”, my favorite, so much more than just the left thumb in one hole and the right in another. “Switch” has everything. So does this collection. Did I mention it will cost you nothing?