Jim Ruland’s Big Lonesome isn’t merely a collection of clever, funny stories. More than just a clever author, Ruland is adept at creating precise, bizarre yet completely honest studies of the human condition while surprising us at every turn.
In “Night Soil Man,” the employees of an Irish zoo (owned by the Belfast Corporation) must have the “specimens removed or eliminated” lest a Nazi air raid result in “dangerous animals unleashed on the streets.” The employees have to get good and drunk before taking their guns to do their duty. They eventually are primed for the hunt, though young Simon—the person in charge of cleaning the “night soil” left by the animals—lets his mind wander: “The first animal he comes to is a tapir. What in bloody hell is a tapir? The plaque on the fence is no help. Ungulate. Nonruminant. Nocturnal. But is it dangerous? All Simon knows for certain is that it craps like a pig and looks like one too. A pig with a funny nose.” Though Ruland could have played the entire story for laughs and left it at that (which would have been quite an accomplishment for most writers), he goes further and takes us to a place where we are truly moved by this horrible wartime corporate decision.
It is true that you will laugh aloud at such pieces as “Kessler Has No Lucky Pants,” in which an interviewer poses in-depth questions to an unnamed respondent regarding the fact that a person named Kessler doesn’t own any lucky pants. Why is this important? The answer: “There are days when a certain something extra is required of us and on those certain something extra days we are accustomed to reaching into the closet and finding (on an extra special hanger perhaps?) a pair of lucky pants.” So true, but so odd. Yet Ruland is able to turn the Q&A into something beyond a one-note joke as we learn more about this poor schlemiel who doesn’t own any lucky pants and who is stumbling through life making the kind of mistakes many of us have made.
Some of the stories will make you titter nervously, such as “Still Beautiful,” which takes the art of stalking an ex-lover to new heights. (If you don’t get chills by the end of this story, congratulations, you’re a Martian.)
The rest of Ruland’s collection is strong as well. The title story takes western bank robbing mythos to revisionist heaven. In stories such as “Dick Tracy on the Moon,” “Red Cap” and “The Previous Adventures of Popeye the Sailor,” the author manhandles cultural icons and twists them close to the breaking point, but not quite. He’s not afraid to challenge our assumptions, and in doing so we get to look at the world from a slightly off-kilter angle.
There are no disappointments in this collection; each story offers something different while displaying a mastery of language and an empathetic understanding of what makes us human. Ruland is a remarkable writer who has produced a debut collection that cannot be ignored.
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