Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot

I think this one came from the NYT Book Review, if I remember correctly. I get so many ideas from so many sources--and I'm so slow to get things off the to-read list and on to the reading list--that it's hard to remember sometimes. Regardless, I have a new writer to enjoy and one that writes my favorite type of story, the short one.

While I can't say I like all of his writing, as you'll see, I like the idea that he tries to get across--namely that the short story doesn't have to be a stilted still-life that tries to be Important. There's plenty of room for the absurd and the rude, rather than just fare for a literary magazine.

All of Boudinot's characters are, for lack of a better word, fucked in the head. There isn't a single story here that's played straight for longer than it needs to be. While each of the protagonists tends to think of their lives as relatively normal, to the reader there's a definite sense of "what shock comes next?"

For some readers, that may be a turn off, but I grew up on family members who loved "Twlight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Tales from the Crypt" was taped weekly when I was growing up and seeing it on Fox reruns. I think a shock ending or odd twist, if done well, can be a hell of a lot of fun. And Boudinot provides that type of thing in spades.

The book opens with a bang--the title story is about a parent who dresses his son up as Hitler and the son who is so dressed. I think the best part of this one is that the father acts completely surprised that this caused trouble at school.

Or take "Blood Relations", a pair of tales about a cannibalistic mother and a serial killer taken to school.

Here's a pretty typical set of writing from Boudinot:

"It was Dads Day at my six-year-old's kindergarten class. We sat in miniature chairs arranged in a semicircle on the rug, answering questions about our professions. One dad broke a beer truck, another was a landscape architect. There were two orthopedic surgeons among us. The teacher, Ms. Vanderbilt, nodded at me when it was my turn.
'I'm a serial killer.'
'Pardon?' Ms. Vanderbilt said.
'I murder people. Maybe you've seen some of the books about me.' I withdrew from my Discovery Channel tote bag a number of paperbacks chronicling my career.
A boy in the back raised his hand. 'What kind of people do you kill?' he said.
'Nobody important,' I said, and the room seemed to come down several notches, terror-wise."

That's pretty typical of the protagonists contained within this book--they look at life much like the Aadams Family does. To their minds, what they do is perfectly normal, such as "Containment," which features a zombie working at a pea-checking plant. (His only crime is a lack of safety.)

Not quite all of the stories are out there. "The Flautist" is a sad story of a man trying to be something he's not, hanging with a crowd he can't truly embrace, and his prized possession may be the price he pays before waking up to the truth. (One might argue that he should try anyway, but the pain of his realization in the closing words of the story really hit me and that ocverrides any other considerations.) "On Sex and Relationships" has a similar theme, as two couples who are moving in different directions try to stay friends. These stories show Boudinot's range, and may be two of the best collected here.

Sadly, there are also a few really bad entries in this collection that keep it from making my best of 2008 (though Publisher's Weekly did name it as Book of the Year in 2006). "Civilization" is an unfunny parody of a right-wing world where Family Values are a bit skewed. Killing parents is every child's duty in a controlled society and Boudinot never misses a chance to beat us over the head with a "witty" satirical reference. "The Sales Team" involves rape as a joke, and I'm not laughing. Last but not least, "Absolut Boudinot" makes light of domestic terrorism. I'm not prudish enough to say we can't laugh in the face of the most serious horrors, but I'd request that they be a bit more subtle. Hitting me over the head with a brick is not satire, at least not the type of satire I enjoy.

Overall, I liked this book and would recommend it. But be forewarned it may not be your cup of tea, and even if it is, you're unlikely to like all of it. It's the great thing about short stories--you never waste a lot of time reading any particular one!


  1. You might be interested to know that Ryan Boudinot has his first novel coming out this September, called Misconception. Based on what you seemed to like in the stories, I think it's worth you checking out. (I work for his publisher, info coming soon).

  2. Cool. I'll definitely keep an eye out! Thanks!