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B.J. Hollars

B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Alabama in 2010 and is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America.

Blurbs

"An imaginatively sculpted collection of absurdist concepts applied liberally to the equally preposterous notion of growing up."

– Kirkus Reviews

"Fans of Kevin Wilson, Lewis Nordan, George Saunders, and Karen Russell need to add B.J. Hollars to their must-read list."

– George Singleton

"These aren't weathered, been-there, done-that, tales but fresh, exciting tales of those coming of age."

– Dan Wickett

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Featured Book

Sightings

Stereotypes Are Questioned, Dreams Are Broken

05/09/13

There are three things I like about Sightings, BJ Hollars's debut short story collection: it’s simple, funny, and insightful.

Sightings aptly begins with a quote from Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree:

"It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness."

Like Bradbury, Hollars manages to invoke the sights, sounds, and smells of small town America through the eyes of his teenage heroes -- and with as much ease. A small town. A small river. A small lake. Bradbury’s writing seems too easy, too simple. But it works so well. As it does in Hollars’s work.

Here’s an example. "Loose Lips Sink Ships," one of ten stories in Sightings, introduces us to a mother with a wooden leg, and a father who is an expert leg-maker. The mother has a problem with her leg. The father bends to fix it. The son tells us, “From where I stood, it looked sort of stupid, like he was trying to shine a baseball bat or polish a rifle. But after a while it started looking less stupid, like maybe he was just trying to push a little life into a dead thing.” Here we are handed a child’s take on life, one that skims the surface, and then leaves us with a splash. Sightings is a collection of coming-of-age stories where naïve language comes out complicated, where moments of purity intersperse the comedy of pre-pubescent boys.

Here’s what I mean about the comedy of prepubescent boys. "Indian Village," my favorite story in the collection -- and the first -- sets up the landscape as follows:

"Ever since school let out, we’d fallen into a routine of baseball in the mornings and pool in the afternoons, a schedule that allowed us ample opportunity to show off the scraped knees we’d earned from our heroics on the field. For several sweltering afternoons, we took turns parading past Georgia Ambler’s peripheral vision (our farmer tans in full bloom), waiting patiently for her to acknowledge our existence."

We find in this passage the Bradbury-esque, Indiana charm of a young boy’s playing field, but also a suggestion of the somewhat un-charming fascinations of boys that trickle in and out of Hollars’ stories. A more blatant example of this would be the opening sentence to "Loose Lips Sink Ships":

“I asked the Eskimo if he’d ever seen a vagina before.”

Or there’s Couch Housen’s huddle-up speech in "Line of Scrimmage":

“Okay, all together, now. Whip dicks on three. . . .”

And the comedy doesn’t stop with boyhood erection discoveries; it seeps into the characters’ very makeup — there’s an Oregon Trail fanatic father, a prom-date-ready Sasquatch, and a twentieth-century Confederate whose wife can time travel. Hollars’s writing sets you up for a nice bike ride around the neighborhood, and before you know it, you’ve tipped over in the grass laughing out loud -- then you wonder if you should be.

Here’s what I mean by that. Remember the wooden leg that the father was shining like a baseball bat? Polishing like a rifle? Then, suddenly, the whole scene changed? The thing about Hollars’s writing is that you’re running along, full-throttle, enjoying the scenery, chuckling here and there -- and then you get to the end of a sentence and realize what just happened. There’s a sadness at the end of Hollars’s stories. Sasquatch may look ridiculous in a suit and bowtie, and it’s funny all the different ways Hollars manages to both humanize and make fun of him, but at the end, you’re sad that the big monster’s become an alcoholic. You’re sad the clowns can’t find a job. You’re sad because a father is no longer loony for Oregon Trail. And it’s not only that. There are bigger issues at play. A father deserts his child, a child dies, stereotypes are questioned, dreams are broken.

These small splashes create a lasting rippling effect, which will make you go back and read the stories all over again.

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