Joseph Michael Owens has written for various publications including [PANK], Specter Magazine, The Rumpus, The Houston Literary Review, and InDigest Magazine. His collectio(novel)la, Shenanigans! was recently released by Grey Sparrow Press. Joe lives in Omaha with four dogs and one wife.
"Shenanigans! is the textual photo-album of Anna and Ben, language made to Polaroid the gentle tangle of coupling and maturation. This is a collection wonderfully tinged with humor, beautifully tempered with landscape, and soaked in the genuine.”
"The voice in Shenanigans! is muscular, rhythmic, and full of whizz-bang linguistic energy. The stories view the world with the kind of self-deprecating humor that makes you want to spend an afternoon just wandering around in Benjamin’s mind. Read Shenanigans! You’ll laugh, you’ll think…you’ll have a great time."
"The charm of Joseph Michael Owens's debut collection, Shenanigans! can be found in his voice. At heart, these are a young man's stories of love and loss, of life and death. There‟s a sincerity that flirts with retro yet feels like innovation. Each one reads like a conversation . . . unscathed by the unsentimental tone that too often passes for hipness in this day and age, yet clearly of his own time. These are honest stories."
"Between Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace's essays, Joseph Owens's stories will take you through a caffeinated romp through his life, its exciting highs and frightening lows. Dogs, horses, bicycles come alive with as much love and empathy as the people he holds dear. Owens's voice, spirited, crackling with energy, is too fierce and engaging to be ignored."
With a title like Shenanigans!, I was expecting a lot of mischief in this collection of nine short stories by Joseph Michael Owens. I was surprised, then, to find a touching relationship at the center of the stories, a connection warmly rendered between the book’s main character, Ben and his wife, Anna. Commonplace becomes setup for epiphany, only the epiphany is more like a softly whispered melody, gently inviting readers along. At the same time, the prose bursts with vigor, painting inanimate environments in ecosystems of exuberance and melancholy — there is a joy in the writing that revels in vivid details. The first story starts, "Contemptibly," with "a hair — not one sprouted from Ben Palko’s own largish pores — floats, follicle, and all, atop the khaki-colored surface of his steaming cup of white-hazelnut creamer.” Even though contempt weaves itself gracefully in and out of the story (including the disturbing, but hilarious, climax), what’s even more fascinating is the peek inside Ben’s head working in IT as a data entry specialist and how the plot becomes a metaphor for the nightmare of corporate life.
Ben’s dogs play a big role in the stories as in the case of, “We Always Trust Each Other, Except for When We Don’t.” Outwardly, it’s about clipping the toenails of his Hungarian Vizsla, but a question of canine trust comes into play and becomes a commentary on the threads that tenuously link man and nature together. In, “Winsome Mshindi,” the eponymous greyhound, “bless his ninety-one-dog-year-old heart, makes the cut on that bum shoulder and chest-plants into the ground at roughly twenty-five miles per hour.” I’m struck by the image of this proud dog trying to, “collect himself,” shrug off the pain, but finding it too much for him, eventually giving in with hoots and yelps. It’s a visceral sequence filled with angst and pity. John Steinbeck had a gift for bringing animals to life in his novels. In this particular story, Winsome jumped off the page and onto the bed right next to me.
“Musings in the Mountains,” was one of my favorite in the collection. Ben bikes up the Colorado’s Rocky Mountains alone and realizes he’s unprepared. “The air gets colder as it gets thinner. Clouds begin rolling in and flecks of rain spit erratically against the carbonite lenses of my sunglasses.” Getting higher, he realizes, “It could be an illusion precipitated by the lack of direct sunlight in combination with the shade of my tinted lenses, but I’m pretty sure my skin is turning a bluish-purple from the cold.” He fears hypothermia and takes recluse at the Visitor’s Center. The buildup is suspenseful and I cringed at the thought of him having to ride down by himself. Fortunately, Anna comes to the rescue, surprising Ben whose heart flutters, “Like the first time we’d ever met.” Of course, when she expresses her concern, he jokes about it with, “faux macho bravado.” Their playful chemistry is endearing and a perfect example of the wonderful dynamic Owens crafts between the characters, never forced, always in a natural progression.
Dynamics and time are one of the central themes in the collection, especially in, “Boxcars and Bomb Pops,” when Ben is reflecting on a story/anecdote that he meant to write.
And that was going to be the real point of the anecdote: that something like waiting on a train out in stale, roasting, middle-of-nowhere kind of heat was just life’s way of telling the two men, the two of us — plain and simply— to stop rushing around everywhere all the goddamn time because really: what’s the hurry?
Indeed, what is the hurry? Owens takes the time to scrape away the veneer and apply a surgeon's blade to everyday life. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Lasagna,” is an anatomy of a fight between Anna and him. But it’s also about the ambivalence of language, the inexplicable capacity people have to talk about one thing and mean another. What I appreciated about this story was that there was no resolution, no makeup scene. Confusion is the focal point, frustration is the theme.
Situational humor provides quirky insights into human behavior as well as laughs throughout. “Curiosity Doesn’t Discriminate,” is one of the more surreal stories and involves a dead horse in a barn, whereas, “Ninjas! (…in the Suburbs?)” contemplates a mysterious neighbor who Ben had, “previously mistaken for an oafish and bruising pummeler who likely dealt with unlucky transgressors only through the brute, Mephistophelian machinations of his meaty fists,” but, “turned out to be actually quite lithe,” with nunchakus. I could envision every motion, every swing through the details — Owens has a gift for painting with words, drawing from a splattered canvas that gets finer with each added contour. These are abetted by footnotes that provide information and act as wry asides. One particular note describes, “Symptoms of freedom,” which, include:
. . .vomiting, dry mouth, constipation, diarrhea, suicidal thoughts, heart burn, incontinence, itchy or watery eyes, irritability, changes in mood or behavior, sudden itchy rash, hair loss or runny nose. If you experience any of these symptoms, please stop taking your medication and call your doctor immediately.
The final story, “The Year That Was. . . And Was Not,” is the tale of their engagement and is as epic as they come, involving life, death, family, love, sacrifice, and mortality. It’s the longest of the stories and a brilliant end to a compelling collection. Owens does something special with both his characters and his readers; he builds relationships and invites us in to help bridge the gaps. After the story is finished, their words, their actions, their images reverberate and linger. There’s a moment where Ben decides to pick up a third dog despite it being against the rules of their apartment. It’s a spur of the moment decision, and I enjoyed the interaction he had with Anna. Just recently, my wife wanted a dog. I thought it was a bad idea in our current situation and we vacillated back and forth. Finally, we happened to be passing a pet store when she noticed a miniature pinscher she absolutely adored. I initially said no, but then remembered the scene in the collection:
Puppies are fantastic — wonderful — especially before you take them home with you. They are an awkward and bumbling mess, innocent and eager, excited to romp around maniacally before falling asleep. . . When they are still at the kennel, or the pet store, or the breeder, before they are yours, they are close to perfect as they ever will be.
Ben and Anna talk back and forth, wondering how their apartment manager will respond. Eventually, they end up adopting a third dog and the scene evokes the depth of their affection for one another in all that’s said and unsaid between the two.
At the pet store, I thought of the story, saw the ‘perfect’ puppy, and relented. And now, we have a third member. It’s rare when I can say a book tangibly affected my everyday life. Joseph Michael Owens does this with almost every scene in his book, and in this case, I have a little puppy to thank him for it.