Review: The Zoo, a Going (The Tropic House)

J. A Tyler
Short fiction
32 pages
5” x 7” hand-stitched chapbook with silkscreened cover
ISBN: 978–1–934513–26–2
Edition of 150
Buffalo, New York
Available HERE
Review originally published on 4/1/13

Let’s first say that I want to eat Sunnyoutside’s face off in a jealous rage at how beautiful their products are. I bought this book simply because I fell in love with the cover (by Anne Muntges of BirdFish Studio). It is hand-stitched binding on linen stock, professionally trimmed with two-color silkscreen over the top of spray paint. Eat. Face. Off. In. Jealous. Rage. Seriously, it is the most perfect thing you ever saw. No need even to read it; just hold it, touch it, rotate it in the light to catch the shimmery spraypaint.

But do definitely read it. Once your eyes have adjusted to the book’s awesomeness, open the thing and ogle some more. Layout, typesetting, linen paper, words, everything … perfect. Before you begin reading, repeat this mantra: I’ll never be as cool as Sunnyoutside, I’ll never be as cool as Sunnyoutside, and then when you close the final cover, your mantra will be: I’ll never be as cool as J. A. Tyler, I’ll never be as cool as J. A. Tyler. If it seems an uninspiring mantra for you, well, consider that you at least still got to read this book. You’ll find sincere comfort in that.

J. A. Tyler’s words are questions never answered, abstract vignettes, like flash fiction or prose poetry, only glimpses of the full picture in heightened language. This is not just a story of going through a zoo, however; it is a commentary on the narrator’s parallel life in a cage, behind bars, always outside looking in or inside looking out. It is a dissection of a family, from the viewpoint of a seemingly young child narrator, and how dysfunctional familial problems with impatient parents

[ … ]
You son of a bitch is something he says to me, to get at me, but really he is saying my mom is that, and maybe that’s what he means, maybe it has nothing to do with my fingernails so clean and the way they don’t do the things he asks in the way he asks them.
[ … ]

relate to animals behind glass, trapped in camouflaged environments, just as this narrator remains invisible and trapped in his own:

[ … ]
Some words are as big as my face. Those words aren’t ego or prick or asshole or Jesus or bastard or wrong. Those words, the ones that could eat a bird by themselves too, like this spider, those are words I don’t say or even think. [ … ].

Much of this writing breaks my heart. The reader bleeds for this child so robbed of an innocent childhood, and yet so normal in this dysfunction we’ve come to accept as normal — a child who endures harsh words and threats of power tools breaking through his bones and who observes everything through smudged glass as if the emotions, this life, all of this around him weren’t really his. And yet, through it all, he carefully refrains from judging or becoming too hard, even when there is distrust where none should be:

[ … ]
My shoelaces are too tight and I want to stop and untie them and retie them again with a little more space, but I don’t want to do it here. Because here, where my dad is making me imagine dying, dead and on the inside of this giant snake, here there is only half of a glass cage, the rest of the place we are looking through doesn’t even have bars or wire. It is open. He could throw me in there, if he wanted to.
[ … ].

This voice, this young narration too-adult beyond his years, is fantastic. Sweet, scarred Jonah. I want to cradle him and punch his parents in the face, then show him that there is more to animals than cages — point out birds in the sky and show him their freedom. And then this voice, this perfect voice that J. A. Tyler has created here, surprises you by showing you he already knows freedom. And herein, Tyler’s excellent craft glows into an uplifting note, as we finally discover that beneath the dysfunction, like all dysfunction, there is still love, that humans cannot help but love, no matter how caged we become:

[ … ]
And the way her hand is on my head it is a feeling I can’t lose, even if it tries to go when other things happen, when the lies happen or the world is cold and seems like it is gone, her hand I need to keep a hold on.
[ … ];

[ … ]
I laugh, they smile. I am smiling.
This is what it means, sometimes, when we are working out, when we are right. Today we are right, today we can move on to the next cage [ … ].

This book is beautiful from start to finish and handcrafted with such care that it would be a tragedy for you not to snag a copy before this limited edition is gone.