Yes, yes – I know I just reviewed Bensie’s Shorn: Toys to Men, but that was a reissue and this is a brand new collection of stories. The only thing more interesting than Bensie’s non-fiction is his fiction, and although I’m not usually a fan of flash fiction, the short hits in Robinson, IL are both entertaining and insightful.
By turns playful and provocative, many of these stories turn on O. Henry surprise, and that’s not a bad thing. It does, however, make reviewing them without spoilers a bit more difficult. The premises for the more outrageous stories are unique but Bensie makes them work. It’s a testament to his talent that he can draw you into a story about a Nazi-themed gay bar complete with tattoos and gassing (“VOTE”) or a neighborhood carnival whose purpose is to raise money to send a boy to a Christian anti-gay school (“Save Dave”) without the weirdness seeming self-conscious.
But it’s not all weird. Some of the pieces seem to come directly from Bensie’s childhood and provide moments of clarity in his relationships with his parents and others, such as the opener, “Denny,” which sees his mother killing a snake for him, or “Swimmer’s Ear,” the retelling of a tender, all too rare father and son moment. These, especially the latter, are done with taste and a heartfelt honesty.
Indeed, honesty is the mainstay of Bensie’s work, be it flash fiction or memoir. “Sunday Drive,” about a father’s reaction when he learns of his son’s molestation, falls in this category, as do “Him Outside the Camp,” which relates a particularly ugly episode between parents, and “Eric in Your Bed,” which revisits and fictionalizes the haircutting fetish Bensie speaks of in his memoir, Shorn: Toys to Men.
But Bensie always changes it up, alternating poignancy with the aforementioned weirdness–“Patsy Cline Airlines,” “The Vest,” about a bombing of sorts, and “The Truck,” which features a mobile disco and bar that travels to RV retirement communities and other neighborhoods.
Robinson, IL is truly a mixed bag, and I mean that in the nicest way possible, packing twenty-seven stories in just over a hundred pages. Many will stick with you longer than you think they will considering their brevity. All in all, this is a highly successful package you won’t regret purchasing.
© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler