I’m probably supposed to dislike Jack Pendarvis. He teaches at Ole Miss, in Oxford, Mississippi, whereas I’m attending at Southern Miss, in the state’s nether region. Our schools are bitter rivals, or casual rivals, or something like that—I’ve never really understood. In addition to publishing a novel and three short story collections—all of them fairly well-received by critics—Pendarvis is tied to two wildly successful animated TV shows: Adventure Time and SpongeBob SquarePants. It hardly seems fair that Mr. Pendarvis is able to write good fiction and popular TV shows. In Mississippi there’s a word for this kind of behavior: showboating!
Pendarvis’s most recent collection, Movie Stars, is largely concerned with marginal characters living marginal lives, mostly in Mississippi. Many of the collection’s stories express angst about life in the uber-south. In “Pinkeye,” for instance, the narrator weighs the pros and cons of a small southern town: “Good: old-fashioned hobby shop provides nostalgia and irony in equal measures. Bad: racists.” In “The Black Parasol,” Amy O’Brien, who has recently moved to Mississippi, catches herself speculating on the ethnicity of a bartender: “He was a handsome, dark guy with crooked teeth and a funny hat. Like, a half black guy, maybe? Not that it mattered. She kicked herself for even wondering.” The stigma of racial intolerance is a topic that many contemporary southern writers (George Singleton comes to mind) deal with. For southern writers, home is a tumultuous place, heavy with paradox. These tensions make for fantastic writing.
Tonally, Pendarvis’s prose is difficult to pin down. It’s voicey, but it’s not as much as George Saunders’s fiction. I’d guess that Pendarvis finds inspiration in the delicately voiced stories of Barry Hannah. Reading Movie Stars, you may not spend much time laughing out loud, but you’ll definitely realize that Pendarvis’s deadpan comedy is there, especially in stories like “Taco Foot,” a short, bitter-funny flash story that became an instant favorite of mine.
What does Pendarvis’s humor look like on the page?
In “Ghost College,” we learn that “Cookie’s wife smelled so good, like a flower smoking a cigarette.”
In “Jerry Lewis,” we meet Humphries, an eccentric who “stood on the back porch every day and painted pictures of turds for spite. [His wife] said they were good.”
In “Cancel My Reservation,” we’ve got Chuck, who “was not good with details. He had even become fat without knowing it.”
Pendarvis’s heroes are often aloof, or downright oblivious. He shies away from elevating his characters’ IQs, or investing them with a whole lot of self-respect. Dimly aware of their flawed circumstances, they rarely possess the capacity to improve their fortunes. Because characters in Movie Stars feel so down to earth, it’s jarring when Pendarvis lets a protagonist to drop a word like “achondroplastic.” It’s as if they’re channeling either The Simpsons or Frasier, and there’s not a whole of wiggle-room in between.
At any rate, we should thank Mr. Pendarvis for not offering another bromide against soulless celebs. He’s not content to state the obvious, and while many of the stories are interested in problems like fame, they negotiate these questions in a manner that feels inventive. In “Cancel My Reservation,” one of the collection’s standouts, the well-meaning but loutish Chuck first-classes it to Hollywood to reunite with an old friend. To endear himself to said friend, he attends an auction for Bob Hope’s personal possessions. The easy move, of course, would be to point out how stupid it is for people to pay hundreds of dollars for Bob Hope’s ashtrays, crappy awards, and porcelain clowns (Pendarvis gets great mileage from those clowns, by the way). But wisely, Pendarvis leaves us with the subtle impression that, ridiculous as movie stars may seem, they carry a weird transcendent value. Our beloved icons matter, even if our attempts to connect with their fame only bring us trouble. Like many Americans, Pendarvis’s characters are driven by a cognitive dissonance about fame and celebrity: nothing could be sillier, yet nothing could be more important.
I can imagine readers of a certain appetite taking issue with the fact that several of Pendarvis’s stories are so dialogue-heavy they’re practically screenplays (the title is Movie Stars, after all), but more often than not, his dialogue is lively and interesting, and I’m willing to listen. Dialogue aside, Pendarvis makes it clear that he’s perfectly capable of crafting strong prose. In “The Black Parasol,” he showcases his authority with setting and atmosphere:
O’Brien ducked around the corner and under an awning. Big, slow drops of rain began to pelt the canvas.
Past the end of the alley was a bar she had never noticed, made of red cinder blocks. It had a glossy black wooden door. Warm yellow light streamed from the dirty windows.
Not all readers, however, will appreciate the collection’s emphasis on metafictional play. Pendarvis doesn’t employ the kind of in-your-face meta hijinks that Barth was fond of, but he often writes about writers, and quite often, those fictional writers write stories that are quite similar to the stories in the collection. The intertwining narratives come to a maddening head in “Dazzling Ladies of Science Fiction,” a story about a writer—Hurt—who, much like Cookie from “Ghost College,” writes copy for “pie catalogs.”
I applaud Mr. Pendarvis for taking a gutsy and unconventional approach to storytelling. Movie Stars adds a number of stellar complications to the standard-issue realist-minimalist aesthetic.