Look! Look! Feathers

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Mike Young’s debut collection sifts through the lives of characters on the fringe, grounding moments of the surreal in a world that is frighteningly real.

The twelve fictions in Mike Young’s first story collection, Look! Look! Feathers, radiate with the maddening shouts and jeers of a motley and mottled chorus. They shimmer in a state of flux that is both enthralling and perplexing, and pulsate with dollops of MySpace-age jargon that stab into the familiar with ironic and mystifying consequences. Young’s voice is fearless, and capable of leaving a lasting taste that is equal parts alkaline and sugar, pungent and reviving.

Young’s collection of poetry, We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough has been described as pleasingly disjointed, dream-like, with gaps in continuity that, instead of leading to incoherence, illuminate the power of spontaneous language to scratch the underbelly of meaning. These syntactic gaps also creep into Look! Look! Feathers, most often in the stories’ opening paragraphs:

When you conk a mallard, I’m saying make sure it spins, because God spread a helluva backdrop for those birds to cameo around in, and if you’re set to fuck with that shit, fuck well. Keep your hair tight. Girls like to feel a neck burr.

Young creates a jarring, post-postmodern neo-slang that, though sometimes challenging to decipher, imbues the narrative with an eclectic, infectious energy, and grants the characters the rush of knowing that they aren’t going to know what happens—even when it does.

A baby the size of a doll pops out of a medicine cabinet. A chubby tuba player goes online through a Japanese-made cyst implanted in his thumb. A lonely mosquito-fogger befriends a teenage supermarket worker in a chat room. To ground these moments of the surreal in a world that is frighteningly real, Young sifts relentlessly through the human refuse pile, extracting only the most tarnished (and fascinating) gems—a bearded ex-drug dealer and hot-springs owner with a penchant for cloves and pool boys; a landlord who lives with his dying mother in the creepiest house in town; gangly emo teenagers building cities out of discarded tires. These are lives on the fringe, swaths of Americana teetering on the edge of a dusk that is both magical and sinister.

Young’s scope is vast, but he accurately and cannily captures the voices of this broad range of characters. He always, however, seems to want to return to the West—and more often the not, to the Pacific Northwest, a land endowed with both disarming beauty and rapidly crumbling desolation. This was the land of Richard Brautigan and Raymond Carver, and Young’s sheer verbal firepower and inventiveness can sometimes surpass the early efforts of both writers. This linguistic dynamism is crucial, because the land and people Young describes have not only been ravaged by time, they’ve also been overwhelmed by the digital revolution, the technological fingers of a Facebook-dominated world creeping around the necks of most of the book’s characters, for better or (usually) for worse. And it is in this juxtaposition of the Old Word and the Internet Age—an elderly man lamenting his wife’s death in the bloody gore-glow of a shoot-’em-up computer game; a middle-aged soccer mom singing her heart out on a webcast reality show—that Young conjures some of his most vital and disarming moments.

In this impressive debut, two stories stand out. “Same Heart They Put You In” is a wrenchingly rendered northern California odyssey that recounts the troubled childhood of a boy raised by gay and secretive ex-hippies, intertwined with a road trip in which the unnamed narrator pines for his strangely indifferent female passenger. It is a bizarre, heartbreaking testament to Young’s ability to craft a host of crummy yet likeable characters whose secret lives unravel in jerks and starts; readers can’t help but feel a tentative engagement, the sense of needing to know what happens even when pain and catastrophe are surely imminent. When Marianne, the pint-sized object of the narrator’s affection, asks, “Are you scared of me?” the reader is forced to nod in the affirmative, at least a little.

And the closing paragraph of “The Peaches Are Cheap,” the first and shortest story in the collection, perfectly captures the book’s journey down the highway of exuberance and nostalgia:

I drive home with my eyes open, then I drive with them closed, hoping to hit something, anything, like a refrigerator box, or a wall of lightning bugs, or a kid on his bicycle, the only thing he really loves.

Christopher Vola has an MFA from Columbia University and is a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail. He eats and blogs in Manhattan. More from this author →