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Reviewed by:
  • Not Everyone Is Special by Josh Denslow
  • Katharine Coldiron (bio)
Josh Denslow. Not Everyone Is Special. 7.13 Books, 2019.

Nearly every story in Josh Denslow's debut collection involves death in some way, whether the protagonist is an on-call driver for a funeral home or the best friend of an eighteen-year-old who chokes to death on a popcorn kernel. People's dads die in this collection; their friends and enemies die; they try to cause murder and self-murder; they are chased by death in the form of their surprisingly criminal uncles. Ordinarily this kind of intensity in the stakes of nearly every story would mark an amateur writer, someone who is incapable of raising emotional stakes between people without invoking mortality. But in Not Everyone Is Special, this is far from true. Denslow's fixation on death in these stories is a mere sidekick to the real stars of the show: tone and character.

Every paragraph in this collection has a special bounce, a lift in its step to conjure lightness contra gravity. For instance, a suicidal character describes a friend: "As far as I can tell, he never sleeps. And the only times he goes out is to pick up dead bodies or meet me for coffee. He's the happiest guy I know." And another character describes a toilet that had been dramatically clogged by a drug dealer named Smartguy Gentleman (really): "Blake finally got it to flush. But the toilet was never the same. It looked like a soldier back from the war, like it had seen too much." It's a species of indigo joy that comes from rock bottom, from consciously making the worst in a line of bad choices. Not true happiness, but the kind of gritty pleasure found in that rotting house in Fight Club. Freedom from the fear that things will get worse.

All of Denslow's characters are losers, and some of them commit the kind of small meannesses that weigh down an immortal soul. In the first story, "Too Late for a Lot of Things," a little person working as an elf at a year-round Christmas attraction almost allows his conflict with Santa Claus to lead to manslaughter. In "Proximity," a terminally inert son, Neil, needlessly sabotages his mother's chance for romantic happiness. The skill Denslow exhibits in this story is significant; Neil does something truly awful to his mother's paramour, but the reader doesn't start to feel bad about it until Neil does. There's also a fabulist element, a really interesting one, but it's a secondary priority to the characterization in the story. Admire Denslow for straining to reach higher fruit.

Other fabulist elements also appear as sawhorses to prop up character dramas. In the title story, a schlubby man cannot figure out his superpower in a society where everybody has one, including his two precocious daughters: "The thing with Candace is you can't lie to her. Using only her olfactory sense, she knows if someone is telling the truth. She says the truth smells like apple pie. Lies smell like egg salad. It's as simple as that." But the story is about fatherhood and about the paranoia that tends to surround one's own insecurity, not about superpowers. In "Punch," a society issues two passes per year for each person to punch a fellow citizen without legal repercussions. This intriguing setup leads into a story that's about bad marriages, money trouble, and friendship. And death, of course. It ends like a Coen Brothers film.

"Sonny Boy" is hard to read as anything but a reimagining of Updike's omni-anthologized "A&P," as it takes place at a grocery store, and a woman customer comes in and shifts everything around for the [End Page 197] narrator. The woman customer, though, is a pathetic creature who scrounges for change, and the other employees of the store play a mean prank on her. The main character's epiphany is empathy. That's a potential improvement on "A&P," come to think of it.

These are intriguing stories, plotted sharply and written well. The collection...