Reviewed by Michael Gawdzik
Sarabande Books 186 pp.
Then they died, and it turned out the afterlife was just like the during life. The poor were still poor, the cripples were still crippled, the whites were still white, the perverts were perverted, And graduates of the University of Phoenix still had the skills necessary to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace. Most of them realized they were dead, but nobody could say if they were in heaven or hell and which religion’s version. By which I mean, let me be clear:
Everyone knew, but no one could say.
Make/Shift drops the reader and characters into worlds, time, and the mind itself. In this debut collection of eleven short stories with three “commercial breaks” between stories, author Joe Sacksteder hypnotizes you with his imagination, beckoning you to join him down the rabbit hole.
The author forces the reader to hold on and consider each word carefully, especially when those words take you to places such as a dystopian game show plucked from a world Aldous Huxley would be jealous he didn’t conjure himself. The story, “Ten Million Worldmarks for the Ourodorics,” follows a contestant on the world’s hottest game show, “Find Your Fetish,” wherein each contestant must not become aroused in order to win a life-changing amount of money. Wrapped around peacock feathers, dull knives tracing areolas and naked Twister, a conversation between solipsism and the Ouroboros (the ancient symbol depicting the snake eating its own tail) emerges—“the only true baptism is at thine own font”—leading the bejeweled, scantily-clad protagonist to realize the true power of his world.
Sacksteder, who already has won the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature for this collection, attempts to celebrate the world of the in-between by shining the spotlight on those caught between worlds and themselves.
There is an urgency to his words as if he is trying to warn us of some impending doom, or of one that has penetrated us already but that we have yet to sense. “Opportunity Is Missed by Most People” vibrates as it rants about what opportunity really looks like: “Dressed in tetanus and asked to climb in the dumpster and stomp down the cardboard and old good and broken pottery…hay bales cutting your cuticles.” The piece reads as if Sacksteder is shaking you by the shoulders and screaming in your face. Other stories hum with a subtler urgency. Like when resident advisor Dani has to deal with the brutal hierarchy of Korean school girls: “Dani had never seen a student so relaxed and comfortable in the face of such serious consequences…I will hurt her. If you keep me here, it’s my promise.”
Sacksteder’s characters often find themselves out of sorts, under the gun, and under the spotlight. He forces the reader into intense moments, capturing the anxiety, and complexity of human thought eloquently, even when he is talking about procreating horses—“Conditions seem auspicious for the creation of new life!” He doesn’t stay in any one form for too long; his tongue-in-cheek commercial breaks take pillars of corporate America (such as Gatorade) and lift up their comforting messages to expose the hollowness of their promises: “Take a sip of Riptide Rush. Put Fierce Grape into you. Try to trick your body into believing—just for a moment—that you are still an athlete. That you still have it in you. Still need it in you.” Another target is Jimmy Johns—“A place where needs would be met before you even knew of their existence.”
“Game in the Sand” continues Sacksteder’s experimentation with form by blurring the line between art and reality as it braids a screenplay with the lives of the actors and film crew. Ultimately, the scene disintegrates in front of all on set.
Sacksteder’s most ambitious gambit in form comes in his final piece, “Enough Sealant to Pool the Concavity,” which, within diary entries, the narrator embeds images, icons, and word maps as he attempts to deal with his grief for his daughter’s death.
His deep knowledge of writing, music, and of those living in between the American coasts, along with his willingness to experiment and play with form, leaves the reader captivated and guessing, never able to feel comfortable with what magnificent and somber realization might be around the bend.
Michael Gawdzik is a high school English teacher and an MFA student at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. He also reads for Creative Nonfiction and Booth. His work has appeared in genesis, Hoosier Voice Journal, IndyStar, and his story chronicling the time he was an amateur boxer in South Korea will be in the forthcoming issue of Sport Literate. His debut memoir is set to be published after he finishes writing it, revises it, pitches it, and finds a publisher interested in it.