Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Species Crown

I just finished reading Curtis Smith's The Species Crown a couple of days ago, and as far as glowing reviews go, let's just say that it inspired me to start this blog. Before I go on, though, a bit of background is in order: I met Curt a year or so ago when we were both doing a reading at the University of Pennsylvania's Kelly Writers' House. The program for the evening included a number of writers who'd had work published in Philadelphia Stories magazine (an excellent free publication highlighting works of writers from the Philadelphia area), and Curt's piece was a touching memoir about the birth of his first child. More recently, I saw Curt at a local writers conference, and he was talking about the value of small presses and where they fit into the big picture of the publishing scene. Intrigued, I thought I'd take a look at his own work in the small press field, so I ordered a copy of his collection of short stories, The Species Crown, from his publisher, Press 53.

And I loved it.

What Smith does especially well throughout his book is to combine pathos and comedy. Without fail, his protagonists aren't simply flawed; they are failures. Failures at jobs, failures at love, failures at life in general. And not just failures either, but grandiose failures, masters of failure, failure virtuosos. In one piece, a petty criminal can't even manage to get a fair shake on a heist that he organized. In another, a bush-league basketball player hits rock bottom when his team falls apart during a tour of Japan. And the novella that lends its name to the collection, "The Species Crown," opens with the protagonist losing his job and moving in with a severely handicapped cousin whose brain injury occurred as a direct result of the protagonist's carelessness.

By placing his protagonists at the end of their respective ropes, Smith does an important thing as far as storytelling goes: he forces them to find new ropes. And as they grasp madly and (more often than not) blindly at potential lifelines, his characters come alive. The petty criminal murders his partner. The basketball player finds a job as an actor, donning a rubber suit and playing Godzilla in Japanese monster movies. The protagonist who lost his job... Well, he has to deal with a lot of issues. But the point is that the solutions in each of these cases invariably open doors to more challenges, and Smith's characters deal with them in realistic and often heartbreakingly comedic ways. This, I think, is the beauty of Smith's work. Time and again, his fiction demonstrates that we are human, we are frail, we are flawed, and we are funny despite (or perhaps because of) it all.

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