Andy Nowicki is evolving. Where it’s by accident or design, he’s evolving.
Oh, to be sure, he’s still writing about the same stuff. Lost Violent Souls’ will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read any of Nowicki’s previous books. Its five short stories expound upon the same themes: self-immolating losers emasculated by women, rejected by society, and furiously stalwart in their pariah status and their anti-life philosophies. But like a boat cast adrift on a river, Nowicki’s writing is slowly drifting into new territory, whether he’s aware of it or not.
It’s this that makes Lost Violent Souls an amazing read.
Unlike The Doctor and the Heretic and Other Stories, Nowicki’s previous story compilation, Lost Violent Souls’ stories are thematically linked around the idea of suicide. Each of them feature protagonists or main characters who either kill themselves or are haunted by the idea of doing so, as well as a few folks who want to bring others down with them:
“I always wondered what it would be like to be on death row,” he says, scrutinizing his placemat. “To know that this is your last night, your last morning, your last meal. Now I know. It’s only when you’re about to die that you’re really aware of what life means. It’s just… unreal.” He throws out the final word with a shrug, like he is aware that a better word may exist to describe this state of mind, but that he’s come to see the futility in attempting exactitude of language.
Lost Violent Souls comprises five stories, each featuring a noticeably different style. The lead-off tale, “Morning in America,” concerns two teenage outcasts plotting a spree shooting (or as they call it, the “Day of the Gun”) at a diner, all the while professing their hatred for sex and the world. It sounds heady, but Nowicki turns their desperate, angry dialogue into a black comedy routine, Kurt Cobain meets the Unabomber.
If you’re looking for sentimentality, you better look somewhere else.
“Oswald Takes Aim” is likely to become the book’s most notable story, as it concerns a world in which Lee Harvey Oswald chickened out when it came to blowing John F. Kennedy’s brains out. As far as alternate history goes, it’s a damn sight better than the ending of Nowicki’s previous novel Heart Killer in terms of plausibility. Fortunately, Nowicki wisely focuses the story not on history, but on Oswald’s relationship with his domineering Russian wife, who routinely belittles and emasculates him:
Marina shook her head and scrutinized her long- missing husband, a familiar expression of disdain returning to her once-lovely features, which had hardened severely with age. Lee just never learned! No matter how many regimes dismissed him as a barely-educated bumpkin, the man never even for a moment wondered if they may have a point. Instead, he always felt thoroughly convinced that he was destined for greatness. It was quite pathetic, really. The notion that a nobody like Oswald could actually have it in him to alter the course of history!
Longtime Nowicki fans will notice a decisive shift in his prose, reflecting his growing confidence as a writer. His earlier novels and short stories were marked by a jittery energy, the nervousness of a first-time author; The Doctor and the Heretic and Other Stories, in particular, exuded a certain degree of fear in its language. No more. Lost Violent Souls is written with a shocking decisiveness—or at least as much decisiveness as you can get when your protagonists are all losers and washouts—and a clarity of language that makes its stories all the more poignant. Additionally, he confronts sex in a more aggressive, anhedonic way; this was foreshadowed in Heart Killer, but the sexual liaisons in Lost Violent Souls will almost make you want to declare a vow of celibacy.
These elements are on display in the book’s two standout stories, “The Poet’s Wager” and “The Wooden Buddha.” The former concerns a newly-unemployed English professor who visits his therapist for the last time before planning to commit suicide; it’s reminiscent of “The Doctor and the Heretic,” only more believable and written from the patient’s perspective. “The Wooden Buddha,” which follows “The Poet’s Wager” and could almost fool you into thinking that it’s a continuation of that story, concerns an unhappily married English teacher who embarks on an affair with one of his colleagues, written in the guise of a letter to his therapist:
After she climaxed, Eva asked me to stop the car. It was the first time she’d spoken since coming aboard, and I did as she asked, pulling into a secluded little wooded alcove. She promptly unzipped my pants and caught my erection in her mouth. She sucked hungrily yet tenderly; then, just as I was nearly at my tipping point, she lifted her head and muttered, “take me” in my ear, before peeling off her underwear and straddling me in the driver’s seat, and I touched her hips as she came again, and felt a fragility in her skin, a frailty in her bones, a desperation in her thrust. As I climaxed, a strange thought suddenly struck my mind: was she still trying to conceive? Did she somehow think that a miracle could bring life to the barren womb, and further, that she could summon forth the soul of the very child she had killed? Could a mad, hopeless drive to undo the choices of the past be the flame that stoked her passion?
That’s the thin red line connecting Lost Violent Souls’ protagonists: alienation. Whether it’s the corny teenage doofuses reading poetry in “Morning in America” or the doomed liaison of Dr. Eva Mesmer and the protagonist of “The Wooden Buddha,” all of Nowicki’s characters are profoundly out of step with humanity, desperately trying to make something of themselves… and failing. Lee Harvey Oswald floats from regime to regime trying to make something of himself; “The Wooden Buddha’s” narrator harbors regret over him and his wife’s failure to have a child; Eva Mesmer retains her guilt about being pressured into an abortion.
Their suicidal ideation isn’t the product of cowardice, but of conviction.
They’ve had it with a world that despises and disrespects them. They’re tired of the iniquities of life in a world where people only live to fuck, watch TV and stuff their faces. And they’re willing to die for their beliefs rather than succumb to sex-addled fatassitude, a metaphorical death by a thousand cuts. Say what you will about Nowicki’s protagonists—they’re self-important, antisocial, broken weirdos—but their tragic lives make them compelling and interesting characters.
The one major misstep in Lost Violent Souls is the last story, “Motel Man.” It’s ostensibly about this quasi-secret organization of monks who have one of their members infiltrate the motel industry, but its vague style and lack of strong characters make it a weak entry in the book. Fortunately, it’s relatively short.
Otherwise, Lost Violent Souls is yet another standout release from Nowicki. If you’ve read his previous books, it’s a must-buy; if you haven’t, it’s a good place to start. I look forward to seeing what Nowicki does next.
Click here to buy Lost Violent Souls.