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  • Cutthroat Compositions
  • Lavinia Ludlow (bio)
Knuckleheads. Jeff Kass. Dzanc Books. 250 pages; paper, $16.95, eBook, $7.99.

Jeff Kass has packed a ton of literary meat and wit into his articulate collection of short stories, Knuckleheads. It's filled with charming tales which ping-pong between adolescence and adulthood: shattered dreams, immature dick-swinging contests, unbridled testosterone, flash to stolen Pop-Tarts, middle-aged dick-swinging contests, and the ever universal sexual frustration.

Kass opens with a story titled "Don't Mess," which provides a glimpse into the life of a teen wrestler, a seed, and the grittiness of cutthroat competition dusted with a Little Girls in Pretty Boxes (1997) essence. There were rivalries, peer pressure, duress to perform, to slim down, all in the name of the sport.

Tough enough, too, to be named top seed at 138 lbs. in the Peru Tournament in Plattsburgh, a cold farmtown with a locker room so cold we could see our breath when we stripped to our boxers and weighed in on an enormous cattle scale. We were a handful of miles from the Canadian border and we were freezing. We wanted to hurt people and get back on the bus and get the fuck home.

In a separate story called "Scramble," Kass toasted to being young and impressionable in a near Hairstyles of the Damned-like manner:

I looked like a potato an angry infant had jabbed toothpicks into for arms and legs.... Horrible qualities for anybody, but excruciating for a kid so consistently horny, he walked around with a boner three or four times each hour. I had nowhere to put that boner, no idea at all what to do with it, and its nagging presence distracted and embarrassed me.

Sometimes, I forget how hard it is to be a kid.

Hands-down my favorite piece was "Parent-Teacher Conference," a story which depicted forgotten conflict merging with new conflict, or vice versa. It's a tale about a childhood nemesis who once bashed in the narrator's head with a baseball, flash to adulthood where the misbehaviors of this nemesis' offspring thrusts the two of them into a passive-aggressive reunion:

The problem's that he sports the same smirk you did on the pitcher's mound. The problem's that on hot afternoons when I'm walking across baseball fields, the left side of my head still throbs. The problem is I lost my lucky bat, turned to wrestling, and years later wanted your son to try and punch me so I could kill him.

Initially, I was under the impression that this guy, in the position of power as the teacher, was nothing more than an arrogant SOB, but the progressive passages dripped with earnest depictions of warranted resentment: "A batter knows the ball is headed to his face when it never shrinks, when it appears to keep growing until a massive blur slams his skull. That's what I remember most, the spherical avalanche overwhelming my entire sense of sight just before the smack." It was then that I realized maybe being an SOB is a part of being human, and I didn't see this protagonist as an asshole anymore; if anything, he was hopelessly seeking redemption for his failures in the dead end motivations of an obnoxious adolescent.

Overall, I sensed a bit of everything in Kass's writing. At times, there were Haruki Murakami dream-like phrases—"Girls who floated through the stench and chill of the gym like an alien fog, mystics in saddle-shoes"—which, fueled by teenage volatility, would instantaneously morph into pubescent 'roid-like rage:

When that whistle blew, I flew at the fourth seed like a rabid raccoon. Sucked his leg to my chest as if I were prepared to eat it for dinner, tripped his other leg and plummeted him onto his back. Maybe I bashed my face into his knee. I don't know what I felt. My mouth stung and there was ripped skin and blood and I swallowed some but I kept surging.

And there were honest depictions of modern marital tensions outlined in "Drowning Superman":

Waiting too long...


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