One chapter book reviews: The Fried Twinkie Manifesto

Categories: Books

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Though I've never been in Nebraska for more than about six hours at a time, most of which has generally involved driving and possibly having lunch, I have some pretty distinct impressions of that state: the plains, the sky, the wind. Nebraska, it seems to me, is a place of austerity, of men of sparse words who toil and save and use no more than they need. Then again, it's also a land of Jesus Saves billboards in front of freeway porn palaces and truck stops the size of mini-malls, so I could be wrong. In any case, it's safe to say that Nebraska boy Ryan Moehring, in The Fried Twinkie Manifesto, his first collection of vignettes and short stories, could benefit from a little more of that spartan mindset, however imaginary it might be.

"Jack's Lions," the story I randomly flipped to (because that's the concept of one chapter book reviews, see, is I randomly select one chapter of a book and review it on that basis), gets off to a strong start. Really strong, actually. Check out this hook:

A man named Thor once split my head open with a crowbar. Most people initially think I'm joking when I say this, but I read the police report -- it clearly said his name was Thor.

In a way, those couple of sentences perfectly capture what Moehring does well in his writing: an image striking enough to immediately arrest the attention, imbued with a conversational tone and a sideways sense of humor that gives you the sense of listening as much as reading; as a matter of fact, Moehring is clearly aware of that tone, since he interrupts the story from time to time to describe how he (the narrator is named Ryan) would tell this story at a party. It's a little gimmicky, but for the most part, it works.

It's interesting, then, that the exact next sentence likewise almost perfectly captures what Moehring does not do well:

Yes, there exists a man in this world whose first name is Thor, and he apparently wanders around the Midwest, ruthlessly clobbering strangers in the head with crowbars.

A fiction teacher I once had whose work I admired often used to say, "you have to kill your babies." Which sounds mildly horrifying, but what it means is this: As a writer, you will become attached to the things you write -- those sentences that have a cadence or an image you like, even just words that have cool sounds. Boring as it may be, though, the most important thing in writing, we must learn, is utility: If it doesn't serve a purpose, toss that shit.

The sentence above does not serve a purpose. It's an okay joke, but it establishes little new information, and what meager information it does establish is, within the context of the story, misleading: In fact, Thor does not seem to be a man who wanders around clobbering strangers in the head. In the story, he is a man whose friend is in a fight with the narrator's cousin, Jack, over something that is not clear to the narrator (because the narrator is really, really stoned) but seems to involve whose brand of truck is the more superior. It's a fine conceit that capably captures the personality of a place -- small-town Nebraska -- its moods and dramas, its men and their concerns. It's got a serviceable plot (events leading up to a random fight) and an impressive share of insightful asides and humorous jokes. Make no mistake: There's some talent here.

What it lacks is discipline. Like a rose bush, a story cannot bloom until it is pruned -- or to use a more Nebraska-ish metaphor, you can't put ruffles on a pig. Well, maybe you can, but it'll do you about as much good as a rose bush at at truck stop.

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3 comments
Ryan Moehring
Ryan Moehring

Mr. Otte:

Thank you very much for taking the time to review one story from The Fried Twinkie Manifesto. Reviewers like you give Indie authors like me the platforms from which to compete with traditionally-published books. With that gratitude in mind, I would like to provide your readers with some additional context to inform their view of the book and your review thereof.

1)      Let me begin by saying that the sentence with which you took issue and upon which you seemed to base the majority of your critique is not a great (or necessary, for that matter) sentence. It is a baby, as you suggested, that I probably should have killed. About that much we agree. However, your eagerness to attack that sentence, I suspect, impaired your reading of the text.  Allow me to explain: Thor did not intervene in Jack’s fight with Thor’s friend, as you stated. While Jack and Thor’s friend were amicably resolving their disagreement, an unprovoked Thor assaulted Jack with a crowbar. This fact lends credence to the notion that Thor does in fact randomly clobber strangers in the head with blunt objects, as my sentence suggests, because he randomly clobbered Jack. These facts are clearly outlined in the text. You would have done well, Mr. Otte, to employ the same discipline you indicted me for supposedly lacking, in your reading of the story. 2)      On the subject of discipline, may I suggest you re-read the following sentence of your review: “‘Jack's Lions,’ the story I randomly flipped to (because that's the concept of one chapter book reviews, see, is I randomly select one chapter of a book and review it on that basis), gets off to a strong start.” I have no problem with you telling me that I’m putting ruffles on a pig. But if you’re going to base that criticism primarily on a single sentence of mine (which is at least coherent), every sentence of your criticism had better be water tight. Again, perhaps you should have taken your own advice and killed that baby, or as you more articulately put it: “toss that shit.” Despite these two gripes, I am grateful for the review and for your time. Thank you. Should our paths cross in the city, the first round is on this “Nebraska boy.”

Cheers,

Ryan Moehring

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