REVIEWED BY SANDY EBNER
Len Kuntz’s new story collection I’m Not Supposed to Be Here and Neither Are You is filled with great writing, but more than that it’s filled with unexpected writing, and at the end of the book I was left wondering which I enjoyed most.
Each story kept me off guard and, in many cases, left me reeling. Did I just read that? I thought more than once, then went back to read the story again. Many of Kuntz’s stories are so true to life that I had to check the back cover to make sure I was reading fiction. Kuntz focuses on the minutiae of family dysfunction––no matter how strange, quirky, or terrifying—that makes us who we are. Stories, if they’re done well, can make us feel less alone and more human. In this, Kuntz succeeds brilliantly. His stories will make you wince, cringe, and, sometimes, laugh out loud, reminding us that we are all dysfunctional, and flawed, and funny, and wise.
My favorite story in the collection, “My Mother, Marilyn Monroe,” tells the story of a troubled woman who creates a quirky, inner world in order to be happy, and in the process teaches her adult children important lessons about living life on your own terms. As they grapple with her strange behavior in the years leading up to her death, each child deals with it in opposite ways. Her son, the story’s narrator, describes the differences between himself and his sister:
“Can you imagine what the neighbors say?” my sister asked. “It’s a wonder they haven’t called the police or the men with white uniforms.” But Sis had always been more like Dad. I was most like Mother. Instead of being a teacher, which I’d always wanted, I became an attorney because the money was better. I led a trapped existence, yet, seeing Mom having so much fun had started to make me rethink my choice, make me take an honest appraisal of my life.
Only the son chooses to take his mother’s words to heart, advice that most of us could use in our own lives: “It’s about time you get off your knees and learn how to fly.”
Kuntz is unafraid to tackle difficult topics, which makes his stories hard to forget long after having read them. In one, a man meets with a young girl to tell her the truth about her brother’s death, a death he himself caused in a drunk-driving accident. In another, a man talks to a girl he has loved and lost: “I want the taillights glowing rat-eyed across the lake to be your eyes, fascinated by me on this winter’s night. I want the cones of light reflected on the wafting water to be a cloud that morphs in undulation so that we can find new characters and objects in its wake, its center and fringes.”
In “Crescent,” a man who was bullied as a child must come to terms with his feelings when he discovers that his son is a bully himself. He writes, “When my son slapped him, Jack staggered but took a swing of his own. My son hardly had to move out of the way. My son dodged. He leaned back. He yawned. He grinned. I had seen this grin before, but now it was like seeing an Indian scalp and not recognizing the head it went with.”
In flash fiction, which most of these pieces are, a writer’s words must do the heavy lifting, becoming more than the sum of their parts. In many of these stories, Kuntz does that with a single sentence or paragraph. In “Up On a High Shelf, the Living and the Dead,” a story that is in fact only one paragraph long, the first sentence is a story in itself:
All her wigs are lined up by hue, each nestled atop a torso-less mannequin, just heads, and of course a sight like that can frighten anybody, especially a kid as young as me, yet I find a footstool from her closet to get a closer look where they sit like glass-eyed zombies, freaky, ghostly, these facsimiles of women who are not my mother.
These very short stories make me want to see what Kuntz can do with longer works.
Only an accomplished writer can write against gender and do it well, as he does in “Mother of Pearl,” and “Just as You Are,” among others, or, as mentioned above, tackle topics that other writers might avoid. By pushing boundaries, both in his writing and his subject matter, Kuntz’s talent shines.
Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, the HerStories/ My Other Ex anthology, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She previously served as the creative nonfiction editor at MadHat Lit and MadHat Annual (Mad Hatter’s Review), and is working on her first novel.
Read More of Sandy’s Work:
- Some Thoughts on AWP
- Distracted by Life
- Brown Bottle by Sheldon Lee Compton
- Gracious Little Bastard: The Story of a Chef
- A Conversation with Meg Tuite
- An Alleyway in Paris