by Jonathan Messinger
To call the beautiful little gems in Jonathan Messinger’s Hiding Out “slices of life” would be underselling. The stories in this collection of shorts are gouged chunks of surrealism: Jock Alzheimers; robots with lazy eyes; lonely simpletons stumbling into the lives of blood diamond traffickers; the story of three generations of men told through kung-fu masters; a man-eating wolf loose in a small town; and a magical machine that looks like a man-sized ear of corn created by an old man whose thesis is “Loneliness is a kind of violence.” Story after story, Messinger hitches heartbreak to his non-sequiturs, giving the stories a lilt that brings them to life, lumbering out of the literary and creeping up behind you to read your diary over your shoulder.
Messinger’s short stories — fifteen in all — are bizarro portraits, a literary pop-art bursting with the riveting detail of still-lifes. Ok, so these bursts of surrealism are more like single-caption, single-panel New Yorker Magazine cartoons, but they have an outsized energy that makes them charming and overwhelming all at once. Hiding Out’s outsiders and dreamers populate these queer little dioramas with dignity and depth. Messinger has a real knack for enlivening the petty behavior of a man cheating with his friend’s wife, for example, with a real forlorn sadness. The banality of our modern existence — emails, buying big ticket items on Craigslist, etc. — feels natural and serves the author’s stories instead of becoming the look-how-contemporary-my-fiction-is gaudy ornamentation that obscures the work of many young writers. Hiding Out maintains a rigorous balance between clever and cathartic.
Messinger’s yarns prove weakest when they get too sentimental and emotional, but are at their best when they are taut and off-kilter, bursting with the stars that flit about your face after a sharp blow to the nose. Most of the stories take up the themes of envy and ego, but Messinger doesn’t linger too long on macro themes, instead allowing his characters to be both petty and profound. In one story, Messinger’s protagonist uses his fear of death by a life-threatening brain tumor as a badge of honor to dangle over a rival — petty, but truly tender. Hiding Out can be laugh-out-loud funny, maudlin, weird, and endearing, and is best when it is all these things all at once.
In one story, a character writes emails to himself — from his office email to his personal email. In a way, Hiding Out feels like those emails written by Messinger and sent directly to the reader’s inbox. This is a world you know, but surreal enough for you to believe it exists only in Messinger’s mind, and you appreciate his being kind enough to take you inside of his fertile yet sensitive imagination.