When Mike Young Drove the Fog Truck He Didn’t Use the Siren
The twelve stories that make up Mike Young’s debut, Look! Look! Feathers do a couple of shitty things to us: they castrate us, kidnap us, curse us, and choke us. And they provoke a loneliness that situates us with a company of friends, neighbors, brothers, and lovers, kept separate by falling snow that fills and robs the emotional spaces between people. Loss fosters growth. These stories offer bloody noses, orphans, and a process of sense-making that requires refraction through delayed adulthood, corrupted nature, and the acceptance of irresolution.
The first story in the collection, “The Peaches are Cheap,” establishes a simple dynamic that Young relies on in many of these stories: two main characters, both able yet wounded, wise and unwise, nostalgic for youth, but in search of an unimagined, vaguely greater something. In this opening story, two brothers meet after work, visit a supermarket, catch up on each other’s lives only briefly before parting ways. The story, spanning only two pages, begins and ends with divergent tone-setting similes for the fragrance of the month of August:
“It’s August and it smells like grass and cranberry fruit snacks.”
“It’s August and it smells like wrenches, grass, distant water.”
That opening whiff is located in a ten year old’s youthful exuberance for a late summer day. The closing sniff, equally associative, is thirsty, not truly appealing, but not entirely depressing. Both smells seem not quite in the present—representative of dreamy, wayward minds that struggle to wander too far from home, but definitely wish to be elsewhere. In the space between those two lines, the brothers hardly address their realities (in which the older of the two is established as a philandering Post Office worker; the younger, the speaker, works for the gas company)—instead they exchange ridiculous occupations they wish they had: one wants to become a firecracker, the other a basketball star, and they both seem to agree that it would be good to learn to drive steamships. The speaker expects more from their encounter. The brothers are mired in banal, unsuccessful lives, yet they dream well, and they still have each other. It’s a weird kind of dissatisfaction. The story ends with the younger brother daydreaming about crashing his car into things both beautiful and mundane, inconsequential and tragic. A “wall of lightning bugs” and “a kid on his bicycle, the only thing he really loves.”
The power of Young’s stories flourishes best through after-the-fact introspection of the narratives, and through dissonant dialogue. Here’s an example featuring three consecutive lines from the titular story:
“They’re in the attic,” Townes said.
“You ate an eagle.”
“We know joy,” Dena said.
That’s not a radical, surreal metaphor; in the story, a father and son purportedly hunt and devour a bald eagle in the Pacific Northwest. And, though the collection’s title advertises a pair of exclamation points, very few of Young’s stories shout. In the other stories, sirens are turned off, lovers part peacefully (though not always lovingly), the dead are softly (but not painlessly) reminisced about, one character is swept up by a dream come true and subsequently never seen again. Mike Young can write a loud scene where someone bites someone’s lip off, but where the long-lasting meaning emerges, the volume is low, subtle.
The people represented in these stories are rarely kids, though there are some adolescents. Primarily, though, these characters are wanton, wistful adults. Their internal conflicts in each story are woven together best through Young’s portrayal of nature and shared histories. Forests, rainfall, snowfall, and local lore bring everybody together. It’s the things that all the characters observe that enable them to transcend mere narrative and offer union with the reader. They look longingly at each other, at their past, present, and future, and then at nature which can be unremittingly uncaring. Young writes:
“You will always want what you can’t feel. Snow is full of little things that fall, and I swear sometimes they all know each other.”
Perhaps, to enjoy Mike Young’s work, one has to have failed miserably at something, to have acquired a maturity that’s only, like, 20% legitimate wisdom and 80% reluctance to leave childhood behind. Fortunately, all of us know shades of failure, and all of us are often huge, gross children.
Dan D’Angelo is the poetry editor of Phoebe.