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By: Catfish Karkowsky
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
Livingston Press, 2009
$26, Hardcover; $15.95, Paperback

It’s not surprising that someone named “Catfish” serves up fiction marinated in a curious, surreal concoction loaded with chunks of oddball characters, with occasional naive misfits sprinkled in for good measure. Catfish Karkowsky’s new book Literture is a collection of brief vignettes offering twisted tales of stalkers, teenage soda jerks, a kid with no arms and legs named Seal, a father abusing his robot infant, and the occasional schizophrenic.

The tales are told as essay-style confessionals and short, short stories. One engaging two-page snippet titled “Stalking’s in My Blood” begins with a distressing confession from an unidentified narrator (as if the title isn’t unsettling enough): “My grandpapa was a stalker, my grandpapa’s grandpapa was a stalker, and I’m a stalker. I stalk because it’s in my blood and it’s what I love to do. I’d rather be stalking than anything. Sometimes when I’m up in a tree, or on top of a roof keeping tabs on a special girl, I’ll just look up into the sky and think: God, today I feel like the luckiest bastard alive. Lou Gehrig’s got nothing on me.” He tells of the “size-zero black ski mask” his parents gave him on his first birthday, the “Native-American silent-step moccasins” he got when he turned five, and the surveillance cameras he received from Mom and Dad on the day he became fifteen. The stalker can draw only one conclusion: “All in all, I’ve had a lot of stalking encouragement.”

In “Baby License,” Karkowsky tells of newlyweds undergoing the tribulation of responsibility with a Trial-Baby robot to prove to the Infant Licensing Bureau that they are capable parents before being granted a permit allowing them to raise a real, live infant. The violence perpetrated on the Trial-Baby by the husband is disturbingly funny. After one particularly vicious punch that smashes the doll’s head so that the husband can rip out its sobbing noisemaker (which informs parents when the robot’s diapers need to be changed or when the thing is hungry), the author notes: “The crying stops but the jaw keeps working, up and down, with a regular, mechanical drone.” Without shame, Karkowsky quickly adds that the pseudo-father then “takes a screwdriver from the tool drawer and pries the tip against the baby’s tongue. The jaw pops off.”

In his essay “Pink Jails,” Catfish urges the U.S. government to paint all jail cells pink, arguing that shame will prompt men to escape any place painted such a female color, never to return. He writes, “Now this is precisely the feeling we should hope to invoke in our inmates. We should want them to feel unmanly in prison (in the sense that they feel ashamed. I don’t want to address the homosexual rape issue at this point).”

Another story begins, “Dear Dr. Shockley, Thank you for treating my monkey bites.” Such opening lines tempt the reader with fear and fascination about what lies around the corner in the next sentence, next paragraph, or next page.

Literture is Karkowsky’s first book. Though the language can be pretty coarse and downright brutal at times, the yarns are recounted with hilarious, shocking, and mysteriously discomforting familiarity. When laughing despite pangs of guilt, one will be stunned into submission as Karkowsky’s imagination teases like a wayward hussy. You bet there’s some lurid sexual frankness in these ruthlessly honest depictions of lives often simultaneously haunted and blessed with self-delusional notions of grandeur. Any promises of hope are not to be disturbed as everyday creeps confront moral dilemmas with shrugging indifference.

It’s a fascinating, philosophical universe that hosts the imagination of Catfish Karkowsky. Exploring such is one heck of an unpredictable adventure. Dec 2009

Edward Reynolds is a writer living in Birmingham.

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