Book: Got Me Wrong
Author: Kevin Akstin
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, gently weird
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not the full-bore weird I generally discuss on this site, but it is one of those books that is neither fish nor fowl. It’s not lit fic but it’s not wholly experimental. Complete inability to classify a work is often a very good sign it is strange in some manner.
Availability: Self-published on the Lulu platform in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Before I begin this discussion, I want to point something out about this self-published book: it is far better edited than most books that come from small and even large publishers. When I received this book in the mail and saw it was self-published, I had a small twinge of trepidation before reading it. My distaste for the increasingly slap-dash efforts that go into editing books is hopefully well-known by now and I feared I would have to gently tell yet another aspiring writer that I could not discuss his or her book because the editing was so bad all I would be able to do would be to savage it. Sometimes I like savaging books, but most of the time I don’t enjoy it and will not throw the same disgust I lob at say, Edward Lee, at a new and struggling writer. It was such a relief that such concerns did not play out with Akstin’s book. It is impeccably edited. Some of the spacing and indentations in my copy are a bit off but when the grammar is spot on, I can overlook wonky paragraph alignment.
One day I will weaken and stop beating this drum, but reading poorly edited books is a chore. I don’t like it when reading is a chore. Proper editing elevates even the most mundane novels and it certainly helped Akstin’s stories. Akstin’s writing style is not one that I am fond of, but clean writing goes a long way in making even that which is not my cup of tea something I am willing to drink. Though I think these stories would have been more memorable had there been more immediacy, I can also admit that applying my specific tastes to these stories and finding them lacking would be a disservice to Akstin’s goal because even as he writes of miserable, desperate people, he is telling the stories of very disconnected people. Immediacy and emotional depth would have spoiled that necessary disconnection. This book is full of addiction, fault memory, aborted and lost children, and brutal fights, and the muffled way the characters experience these traumas ring as distant as a Carver story but without the minimalism.
When I read this collection, I didn’t feel kinship with the stories. Despite having a glimpse into the lives of strangers, at times intimate looks, I never felt like a voyeur, looking through windows with a telescope. I felt like a clinician peering at slides under a microscope. It’s the distance in the prose that created that feeling. In this collection of 16 stories, Akstin presents a common theme of madness, guilt and a great desire for atonement with a creepiness that permeates all the stories. What made these stories interesting is that even as you feel like a dispassionate observer, there is a maddening yet compelling fuzziness to some of his endings that forces you to interpret the story, further driving home that reading his work is an act of interpretation, not connection. You are looking at the disease cells under a slide, not talking to the patient.
There were a few stories in the collection, as in all short story collections, that worked better than others. To keep this from becoming overlong, I’ll limit myself to the stories I liked best. Be warned: there will be spoilers.
Boötes is the story of a damaged young man on his twenty-first birthday. The story begins with a necessary definition:
The Boötes void is a tremendously large, approximately spherically shaped nearly-empty region of space, devoid of galaxies. At nearly 250 million light-years in diameter, it is one of the largest voids.
We never find out the the name of the narrator, but we know he spent time in a relationship with a young woman named Estella. He doesn’t remember how long they were together, though he still relies on her to bail him out of bad situations. On his birthday he is in a bar, talking to a stranger and gets drunk, calling Estella to come get him. We later learn he has been a heroin addict for two years and if he has quit or not, he may not even know. Time is not particularly linear to him.
Estella comes and gets him and every woman who has held on too long in a dead relationship because the man or the boy meant well and was innately good in his utter toxicity will recognize something in the conversation she has with the narrator, a frustrating rehashing of the same old, same old issues. Estella drives him to her home and they go to bed, not to have sex, but to sleep. In sleep his uneasy relationship to time becomes more pronounced and it is unclear whether or not he dies or just falls into such a drunken stupor that no one can reach him. I tend to think he died. There is a dead animal and blood earlier in the piece that portends nothing good for him. Also supporting the death theory is this passage, which is an excellent example of Akstin’s writing style:
Where, I wanted to ask myself, had I slept last night? I couldn’t remember waking up in the morning, and, in fact, at the moment I couldn’t remember where I lived. I tried to explain it away with drinking, but I knew there was no way I’d drunk enough to start forgetting like this. There was a soft thrumming in my head, a sensation not of this Earth, as foreign to me as the automobile to primitive man. I looked at the flat ground on either side of me, the flat road ahead, and all of a sudden, I remembered something about black holes, how a person approaching the event horizon would see it as receding in front of him; and so there was no way to anticipate the moment when the force of gravity would crush every atom in his bones.
Another story that stayed with me was “Baby Shoes.” I wonder if this story is an homage of sorts to Hemingway’s famous six word story (for sale: baby shoes, never worn). A man wakes, hearing something scrabbling around in the garbage cans outside the house. It dawns on him that the sounds are too methodical to be a raccoon and goes to have a look. Once outside, made nervous, he takes a walk. He walks by a bar and hears a man talking to the bartender about how much he hated his child, how the mewling infant had ruined his marriage, and he had walked away and never looked back.
Appalled yet fascinated that the man was willing to share something so dark, the protagonist goes into the bar to join in the conversation, revealing he had felt nothing when his own wife divorced him. The two muse that something is wrong with them and after a stiff drink, the protagonist returns home. But the next night the rummaging noise in the garbage resumes and he goes outside with a flashlight, ready to confront whoever is out there.
I could see now in the pale light from the kitchen. For an instant I thought he was holding a piece of string in front of him; then I saw the shoes that dangled from his hand by the laces, sized as if for a doll – baby shoes, I realized, and I shrank away from him, shivering.
“Don’t you remember ‘em” he asked. “They’re yours – I found ‘em at the bottom of your trash.”
A trace of recognition crept to the surface, and for an instant I remembered pressing my hand into a brittle softness, holding something down as if it would escape. As the sensation faded I felt my breath again, quick and struggling. “No, I don’t remember,” I insisted.
I still couldn’t make out his face – it seemed to blur in the darkness, the features melting into one pale mass. He stood in place, holding out the shoes as if offering them to me. “Well, if you don’t want ‘em, I guess I’ll take ‘em.”
He walked past me, opening the gate and shutting it behind him; by the time he was ten feet past it he was no longer visible.
We never know exactly what it is that the protagonist did or did not do, but Akstin weaves an uneasy tale of a man who is haunted by an action he took. Hints of violence and of hidden truth loom under the surface of the story. After seeing the man with the baby shoes, the narrator takes a stiff drink and tries to block out memories.
She was three states away now, I reminded myself, and there was nothing she could do.
But the baby shoes were a form of proof, of sorts, and I don’t believe there was a man digging in the trash. It was the man’s conscience, confronting him, threatening him with the police, reminding him of who he is and what he once did. This is a very creepy, effective story.
In this vein of uneasy memory and hints of murderous menace, “After” is another quite good story. Another unnamed protagonist is experiencing difficulty remembering something that may or may not have happened, something terrible. Unable to sleep in a motel room, he goes to get a bite to eat. In a diner, a woman recognizes him and is terrified that he is stalking her. She is overly scared of him and leaves, and an older man confronts the protagonist:
“What the hell did you do to her?”
There was nothing equivocal in the accusation, or the threat behind it. He looked ready to pull out a shotgun and take me down where I stood.
“What do you mean, what did I do to her? I’m not even sure I know her.”
“The lowest thing a man can do…” He spoke in a quietly bruising voice…
The protagonist considers getting into a pissing contest with this man but thinks the better of it and leaves. As he leaves, he searches his memory for the reason why the woman was so scared of him.
I was sure now she was someone important to me, a heavy presence taking up most of what little memory I could access, and I was sure that I wasn’t the one who hurt her. I knew something profound and irreparable had happened, but I couldn’t place the when or the where of it, let alone the why. How could she be moving freely through the world, I asked myself, when I’d seen them take her away from me?
That last sentence is sort of a record scratch. She’s alive but someone took her away from him? This man is not working with the sort of reasoning we associate with sound minds. He drives around the town and finds himself outside of an isolated house with a PRIVATE PROPERTY sign in his own handwriting. He enters the house, noting bullet marks in the wood, a bloodstain on the wall. His first thought upon seeing it:
Can’t even clean up your own mess, can you?
It dawns on him that he has indeed done something terrible, that he is indeed a very bad man and has done the lowest thing a man can do. I wish that Akstin had left the story at that, forcing the reader to make his or her own decision as to what is happening – a serial killer with a memory problem returning to the scene of the crime, or a confused man whose violent moments are overwhelming him. Akstin explains what happened and it diminishes the power of the story. Luckily, in most of the stories, Akstin permits his readers to reach their own conclusions.
The three stories I discuss here are some of the shorter stories in the collection and it must be said that Akstin’s stories work better when they are shorter. In some of the longer stories, I lost the thread in the middle of the story and would have to begin again. After finishing the story, “Catholic Skin,” ten minutes later I had a hard time remembering what happened and writing this discussion now I cannot recall a single detail. And that’s a problem. But when Akstin limits his word count and gets his stories out in a tighter structure, he pulls off memorable stories, most of them very creepy.
Overall, this is a reasonably solid collection. Three-and-a-half stars out of five. Akstin’s style may not be my favorite form of story-telling, but even I can find some of these tales compelling reading. I give it a tentative recommendation. If you are a person who likes the menacing flatness of Raymond Carver combined with a post-modern tendency toward meandering, you will want to give this collection a read.