Malevolent Figures: On Darrin Doyle’s ‘Scoundrels Among Us’
Doyle’s disparate, zany, and sometimes brutal stories about men behaving badly range from the frightening to the charming.
Stories | 292 Pages | 5” x 8” | Reviewed: PDF ARC
9780998632599 | First Edition | $15.99
Tortoise Books | Chicago | BUY HERE
Scoundrels Among Us by Darrin Doyle, author of Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, and The Dark Will End the Dark, collects 29 disparate, zany, and sometimes brutal stories about men behaving badly. From the frightening to the charming, the funny to the incomprehensible, the chilling to the downright strange, there is something in this unusual collection for everyone.
The first story, “Insert Name,” concerns a set of nonuplets — that is, nine identical twin brothers — who, after the initial publicity concerning their highly unusual birth has died down, live a life (or should that be lives?) of relative isolation. While they were once media attractions and the subject of much interest among their peers, all too quickly people appeared to fear them, to fear their sameness, their “uncanny doubling” and the sense that they “shared a hive mind.” Rather than being addressed by name — as adults, they can’t even remember their individual names, in fact — the brothers were color-coded by their parents, with little round stickers being affixed to their foreheads to help differentiate them. It seemed odd to outsiders, but the boys knew that their parents were doing the best they could.
“They’d only wanted what all married couples want: a family. Instead they’d gotten a bizarre nightmare. We used to hear our mother sobbing in her room, an awful sound, helpless and lonely. Our father worked as much as he could, sometimes seventy hours a week.”
Of course, as time moved on, it became impossible for them to exist solely within the familial bubble, so the boys, now grown men, were forced to enter the world of employment. They got a job at a large regional superstore, one role to share between the nine, and they adopted the collective name “Neal” so that they might be as unobtrusive as possible. This first story sets the tone for the entire collection as, while the world inhabited by the brothers is recognizably our own, there is also something peculiar about it, something decidedly off-kilter about both their environment and their actions. The brothers move into the superstore and live off food that is close to reaching its expiry date. They hoodwink their coworkers into believing that they are one person. They even enter into relationships with unsuspecting women, all while maintaining the façade of “Neal.” What starts off as amusingly strange and offbeat, ends up being really rather sinister.
“Neal” is far from being the only man featured in the collection who would probably best be avoided, since the book includes some odd folks who are up to some even odder stuff. There are more than a few overtly malevolent figures. In “Water Fowl,” the source of menace is a young boy who gets his kicks from tormenting birds in the park.
“This boy is not hilarious. Not endearing, no. He’s taunting a duck at the edge of the pond. He’s not yet school-aged, this boy, and already he craves the thrill of domination. He throws a stick. Another.”
The boy’s mother watches him as he taunts and throws ineffectual projectiles at the duck. She mistakes his anger and fear for playfulness, since “mothers do not see the sons and daughters they have.” It’s a surprisingly profound moment in an all-too-brief vignette. The boy isn’t the only character in Scoundrels Among Us to quickly turn to violence, although he is certainly the youngest. In “Engagement,” a middle-aged couple return home from the first raucous party they have attended in years, and the husband unleashes all his pent-up frustrations on an unfortunate neighbor who happens to encounter them, while in “The Search for Boyle,” a group of friends breaks into the house of their missing coworker, discover a trapped cat and a tantalizing camera, and soon find themselves in a whole heap of bloody trouble. It’s impossible to like a lot of these people, but it’s equally impossible to turn away from their stories.
The idea of nine identical brothers sharing a single mundane identity and living in a superstore isn’t the only surreal element within Scoundrels Among Us. Indeed, in “Dangling Joe,” an unidentified Asian man is spotted dangling above an unnamed American city. As people gaze up in amazement, “seeing no wires, no platforms, and no means of support,” they realize that something — anything — must be done about him, however calm and contented he may appear. When a rescue is attempted by helicopter, the man simply moves (or is moved?) to the side and out of reach of his would-be saviors, much to their disgust. Public opinion regarding the man is quickly polarized, and even the President of the United States can’t bring the dangling event to a close. The setup here is excellent. It seems like there could have been more said about the man’s troubling situation, though, as well as the impact it has on the wider public, as the story appears to end rather quickly. It’s a criticism that could perhaps be leveled against a number of stories in the collection.
While most of the stories included in Scoundrels Among Us appear in standard prose form, there are some notable exceptions. For instance, “Session 1” is told in the form of a Q&A, during which someone who might just be a psychiatrist becomes increasingly frustrated, as well as surprisingly illuminated, by the answers provided by someone who might just be a despairing former criminal. Then again, maybe he’s just a fantasist who can’t answer a straight question. Whatever the truth of the matter is, one thing’s for certain: you wouldn’t want the guy living in your crawlspace. Also noteworthy for its style as well as its content is “D. T. Myse’s Cold Blood from a Scorched Cat: Sweet Whiskers in the Grip of Death,” which takes the form of a book review and evokes a sense of disgust, if not horror, as the reviewer gets to grips with the physical attributes of his assigned tome, as well as the effect that the book has on his own person. These deviations from the more standard short story are certainly welcome additions to the collection, and they highlight the versatility of Doyle’s storytelling.
Taken together, the stories included in Scoundrels Among Us demonstrate phenomenal breadth of subject matter, with their plots ranging from the theft of the president’s pickle, to the perils of the Mandroid Dentist, to a town that just can’t stop partying, to the guy who killed the Invisible Man (or did he?), to the title story, “Scoundrels Among Us,” in which five ne’er-do-wells roar into town in a pickup truck with an “exhaust thunderous as the Devil’s flatulence” and overrun the mayor’s office. It’s all delightfully odd. There’s much to enjoy about the book and, even if some of the stories seem a little too brief, or if they maybe end when it seems like there are elements left to explore, they’re all still hugely entertaining and, often, rather thought-provoking.