Next to Nothing: Stories – Keith Banner (Lethe Press)

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“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.” 
― John SteinbeckThe Grapes of Wrath

 These vignettes of life in a place and time where big box stores, fast food, obesity, American Heartland heartthrobs and heartaches, self-pity eased by pitying the pitiful, laundromats, Olive Garden, Ponderosa and Bonanza Steakhouses, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Arby’s, McDonalds, Applebee’s, homo sex with the large lady’s skinny husband, cancer, ambiguous aspirations to become an assistant manager of anything, fathers loving sons in that way, big ideas, trailer parks, miscarriages on the toilet, convenience stores, baldness, Goodwill, Alzheimer’s; this is a place and time where dismalness is a religion to be embraced or rejected, where, as Camus suggested, “Nothing is given to men, and the little they can conquer is paid for with unjust deaths. But man’s greatness lies elsewhere. It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition. And if his condition is unjust, he has only one way of overcoming it, which is to be just himself.” Yeah, there’s that, “There’s just stuff people do.”

Consider these: “He has the sense of optimism it takes to not have a job and yet be able to belly laugh at Home Improvement and eat a whole pizza and smoke dope and play on his sons’ Xbox all day.”

“Robert’s mom turned lesbian last year…”

“He understood he could get away with things, and he also understood that people like me and Elaine would always be there, the kind of people who liked the feeling of being used.”

“He loves me back like he loves everybody else, quick grunts and long pauses.”

“The apartment complex parking lot is filled with just-bought used cars.”

“I was always on the verge of being a good guy—I had the smile, the look, the feelings, I was ready to be activated. But then something stopped me. My human-being card was always being spit out of the ATM.”

“This is the secret nobody tells you: there is so much happiness when you finally give in, a kind of happiness you can’t imagine until you hit the very bottom.”

I will tell you that Banner captures the underbelly of American life in the heartland with an eye for the exquisite subtleties of it. One of my favorite lines is, “The apartment complex parking lot is filled with just-bought used cars.” No, it’s not brilliant, and probably not something most would hone in on. But, when I read that line I said, “Yes! He’s got it.” The purest essence of observation. It was as if he and I had spent an afternoon with beer and Fritos, trading our catalogs of taglines for what we’ve seen in our life experience as representing the subtleties of living on the edge—a place where life is lived from hand to mouth, where life is confronted with the desperate humility of an aged dog tied to a tree. What else is there to do but just simply deal with it?

The dark picture of the American Heartland Banner gives us, is peppered with the kind of off-color humor that, at times, causes you to stifle your amusement, put your hand to your mouth, and sincerely enjoy the giggle inside. His storytelling is contagious. It infects that part of you that you don’t often want to acknowledge is there, but it is, and sometimes it’s good to just release the defenses and let it in. I did that, and I’m happy I did.

You wrote a good book here, Mister Banner. Thank you for that.

“They were trying to save their souls- and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies?” 
― Upton SinclairThe Jungle

Reviewed by George Seaton

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