Calling Luke B. Goebel’s Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours a novel seems too one-dimensional for the sophisticated, innovative fiction in these pages. Like the Beat writings to which Goebel alludes, Fourteen Stories is a captivating and complicated read—a work that’s impossible to breeze through and difficult to summarize. It’s a book I carried around for weeks and whose pages, which I often returned to again and again, are rippled, dog-eared, and covered in ink and underlines.
Comprised of thirteen spastic, horrific, heartbreaking, and humorous chapters weaved into one narrative, Fourteen Stories gives us the deepest thoughts of Goebel’s alter ego, H. Roc, on an RV journey across America. While the themes of Americana, exploration, spirituality, and psychedelics are a hat-tip to Kerouac, the prose (and often long-winded rants) reads more like Burroughs. It’s energetic, fragmented, and rhythmic in a way that’s almost dangerously tempting to read quickly. Each sentence is loaded with complex ideas that need to be slowed down and analyzed, about identity, life after death, and the real and the imagined.
The strength of Fourteen Stories lies in its characters, many of whom are extensions of Goebel himself. We’re introduced to characters like “the Kid,” “the new cowboy,” and sometimes just pronouns like “one”: “One was he. (He was me, why pretend?) He (why say he again? I’ll tell you why: to give the old ‘I’ word a break).” Whether he’s describing himself or anyone else, Goebel’s descriptions remain gritty and visceral. Take his description of “the Kid,” from the beginning of a chapter called “Apache”:
Half a hand was that hand. Three fingers and a crust of dead stump, but what was there, there was plenty for a boy needing to become a man in the West. No, not boy, but the Kid; the real Apache man with the half hand called him Kid, though Kid’s name it was not yet. Not earned, and not three fingers but two old fingers and half a thumb was that hand.
One of the most influential characters is one we never get to meet—a brother named Carl, whose death shook the main character from a life of antics to one suddenly more in tune with reality. Reflecting on when Carl was alive, Goebel writes, “My brother and me walking around doing nothing. Me? Post-peyote, head in birds, talking to God and thinking of America.” His post-death reflections become much more self-aware:
I’ve done the white man peyote walk for seven years plus. Meaning I can’t see right and I’m haunted by things that I do not understand, having blown my head and flesh wide open on the peyote paste with Indians circled around me in a teepee with feathers in hair and hand drums and old ancient chants which I think is just crying and getting it back… Once you’ve lost someone like we have, you go on despite it. You make due without your due. You find holiness in the holes where time cuts you a break.
Goebel is masterful at controlling complicated timeframes and manipulating the way we read. Many of his chapters are long-winded and complicated—like “Out There,” a sixteen-page story written in one paragraph and almost entirely in parentheticals—but Goebel is able to slow us down and bring us back to real time. From the beginning of “Out There:”
Out there (out there, out there—I am going to level with you. Worst story in the book is this story in the book. So I am going to spruce it out, spur it up, add some kitchen spice. Hey, I’m back. The spice is in the RV here, at my table, in the motor coach, overlooking the old Cliff House in San Francisco at Land’s End…)
Goebel reminds us not only of where we are along his journey, but that we’re right there with him, experiencing these stories at the same time that he tells them, and processing them simultaneously. He opens his feeling directly to us, the reader, his “Yours Truly.” “You want to know how dumb I am, Yours Truly?” he writes, “You want to have any idea what sort of… it’s embarrassing. It is. I am ashamed.”
After all of the pain, misery, and grief, I was surprised that I was left with hope. Hope for H. Roc and Goebel, but also hope for the future of short fiction. With Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, Goebel re-introduces a genre—the gonzo American travelogue—that many of us tend to think is dwindling, and proves that his voice deserves to be recognized.