Reviewed by Matt Meade
Cowboy Jamboree Press 230 pp.
Cowboy Jamboree Press brags that it publishes “good grit lit,” and Michael Chin’s book makes sure to earn those bona fides. Not unlike grit lit forebearers Donald Ray Pollack and Larry Brown, it’s not uncommon for The Long Way Home to veer drunkenly over the median into fistfights, criminality, and people so desperate, they don’t know from whence their next meal will come. The sweat and dust bit by the traveling performers characterized in this book results in a layer of grime so thick, the publisher should provide a moist towelette with every purchase so a reader can clean the residue from their fingers when they are done. Certainly, some details in the book are so grotesque they beg belief; the injuries that become common place, the fireballs shot into teenagers’ faces, the wounds gaping and infected, yet the book refuses to rely on shock value. Rather, the book makes its bones with selfless moments between lovers and the soft alighting of a parent’s hand upon a child’s neck.
The stories in The Long Way Home take place adoringly, unabashedly, and authentically in the world of professional wrestling. There is no getting around it, nor would the author, Michael Chin, want to. Chin recognizes the mythmaking of professional wrestling as a vast, untapped library of stories catalogued and documented and ready for investigation. The myths, mores, and language of wrestling—beaten into usefulness from a century of pragmatism—is fertile ground for a writer like Chin to employ in describing notions of truth, artifice, love, friendship, and artisanship. These sixty or so mean little tales come across as dispatches from some strange world, as if Grimms’ fairytales all took place in a moldy locker room.
Utilizing the world of professional wrestling also absolves Chin of pretense. He has no choice but to make the book disarmingly and aggressively earnest. It’s full of captivatingly tender, emotional jiujitsu like the following line: “He (my father) wore his nicest suit, black, in the casket. I wore his second nicest suit, navy, because I didn’t have one, and it’s not like anyone else would use it.”
And moments of affection like when an aspiring wrestler works a match with her legendary mother and their bodies wrap together: “Erica had gotten the tattoos on her arm after her mother’s. Mom had the big tree that reminded her of where she’d grown up. Erica had the fallen leaves that reminded her of her mother. When their bodies connected, the tree was touching the leaves.” That’s where the book executes its most impressive move set. When it’s getting you to let your guard down, convincing you this is a real place, only to heelishly tempt your heart into a pinning predicament.
Unfortunately, the book does lose its way by the third and final section. There is so much promise, and so many moments of profound insight into the human need for connection in the first two sections, that a reader comes to the final section with raised expectations and hope for some kind of crescendo, only to find it to be as big a letdown as arriving at Lourdes only to find it to be a tourist trap. This is partly a function of the book’s structure, the first two sections part of a carefully built match card, until the third and final section where the book runs out of steam and fails to deliver in its presupposed main event.
Not unlike the book’s antecedent, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, calling A Long Way Home a book of short stories isn’t exactly true. The book is made up of two- to three-page vignettes that combine and interconnect, but they also don’t always resonate on their own. Reading them as a whole provides much more of an impact than reading the sections as individual flash pieces (though many of these stories were published in literary magazines on their way to being collected by Cowboy Jamboree). The book is less like a collection of stories and more like scrolling through the pictures in a photo app on someone else’s phone; reading the book has that same voyeuristically frenetic feel, replete with that same fear of not knowing what you might find in the next one. That same excitement of seeing glimpses, little slices into someone else’s genuine world, and also the same sense that there is some overarching narrative that connects all the pieces. The book is nothing if not authentic, honest, genuine to a fault. The third section, comprised of three stories about loss, longing, and wrestling, seem like afterthoughts and fall into disappointingly mundane traditional story structure. While the first two sections crackle and sing, flying by breathless and urgent, the stories in the final section plod and slavishly adhere to the humdrum craft exercises the rest of the book refuses to be beholden.
The organizational misstep isn’t enough to ruin the experience of such a boldly sincere book. It dares to be about the affectionate, if complicated, relationship between parent and child, (or parent-figure and surrogate child), and between people who learn to trust and rely on each other when they are in a situation no one else would understand. It’s about the pains of outsiders and lovers, the dreams of strivers and criminals.
Like other fictional works about artists, (Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy and Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad come to mind), The Long Way Home is less interested in examining the art form that provides the setting, but the psychology of the people who would pursue that form. These vignettes are impressionistic in their ability to leave a reader with just an inkling of this world, this life, just enough to see themselves in the endearingly desperate people struggling with debt, ghosts, and expectations, their own and other peoples’.
This book is not what you think.
Matt Meade was the winner of Columbia University’s EVOLVE fiction contest. His fiction has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Sou’wester, Bourbon Penn, and elsewhere. His review of Alabama Noir for ACM can be found here.