The Ways We Get By by Joe Dornich
Review by Edward Jackson
Black Lawrence Press
Publication: January 2021
The Not So Absurd, in the Absurd Settings of Joe Dornich’s The Ways We Get By
Joe Dornich’s collection of stories find the right balance of new weird and traditional short story form to draw in a wide range of readers. The nine stories have interwoven characters that remind us, as they veer just enough off the track, that we are indeed in a very strange world. Dornich’s characters find themselves in a variety of odd jobs such as cuddlers, fake criers at funerals, Jesus impersonators at Christian theme parks, and campers at a sleepaway where all are allergic to sunlight. While the settings are not that strange, a boat, a camp, even a brothel for cuddling, it is the circumstances within those just enough odd settings that make the stories resonate with readers.
Dornich wisely starts the collection off with The Continuing Controversy of the Snuggle Shack. One part new age retreat center, one part non-sexual brothel, and two parts weird, readers are drawn in as the circumstances of those protesting the existence of this benign center of cuddling as much as they are drawn to the workers. The protestors seem eerily familiar to right to life protestors, and their tactics can be equally as frightening.
While the settings of these workplaces draw readers in, it is the protagonists of each story that readers will linger the longest with. It is a genius battle that Dornich has achieved by not allowing these wonderful settings to overshadow his characters.
The collection for the most part is wisely put together with a balance of odd settings that may not exist in our world but seem fully probable to settings that we see today.
The Reluctant Son of a Fake Hero sees the world of a Hollywood Boulevard costumed superhero worker from the eyes of its teen protagonist, whose father poses for tips with tourists as Superman. The setting, one that anyone whose been to Los Angeles knows all too well, is sadly coiled into a California roll. The young boy ends up joining his father as Aquaman on the boulevard, barely making a living. It is the underbelly of the workers in these jobs that gut punches the reader.
The obvious parallels to sex workers are indeed one of the most resonating themes of the collection. Dornich’s settings like Hollywood Boulevard, the Snuggle Shack, and the insemination center at the endanger animal release center, all remind readers of places we often look down upon in our world. But Dornich forces the reader to reexamine their thoughts on the workers in today’s world at places like these.
In addition to the world of sex workers that readers will find parallels too, Dornich readily taps into our daily relationships through family and coworkers that readers will gravitate to. More interesting, though, is the less visible parallels. Dornich taps into our fears as well. The idea that no one would cry at our funeral, makes the hiring of actors to be paid criers completely understandable as the American reader will always have fears about that. But Dornich also makes many parallels to religions and its hypocrisy. The actors at the Christian theme park, show the absurdity of American religion in all its glories.
While the balance of relatable settings to the new weird workplace situations is a balance of achievement, the collection falls a bit flat in the placing of its last story. Boat Guy feels a bit out of place with the rest of the collection, and not the best ending note. It leaves the reader less enthused by the settings and characters that we started with that packed so much into them. While Boat Guy certainly fits well with the collection, it is not a great bookend to the The Continuing Controversy of the Snuggle Shack. Boat Guy, while funny and a bit odd, feels all too relatable of a note to end on. A boat with a broken toilet and an odd captain doesn’t match the power of the wonderful weirdness of the Snuggle Shack. Had the order of the stories been arranged in a more powerful manner with particular attention to the last one, readers would leave more satisfied. A better ending story that matches the opener would have been more impactful.
Boat Guy would have been a better fit in the middle. This misstep is a key to the importance of arrangement regarding a collection of stories. Perhaps Understudy to Matinee Jesus, would have been a better closer to the collection. With it’s relatable setting, a theme park, and its oddness of the characters work, spoke better to the achievement of the balance that Dornich was so successful at.
Arrangement aside, Dornich’s collection of stories, The Ways We Get By, is an achievement in the new weird reaching a wider audience. One ready for a world of new jobs that seem strange, yet totally relatable. Many of us may need paid criers at our funerals as the world gets more cynical and Dornich has wisely tapped into that. Dornich has created several characters and settings I quite enjoyed spending my time with.
The Ways We Get By is available now from Black Lawrence Press.
Edward Jackson is a creative writer who has published prose in a variety of publications including The Louisville Review, The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Blotter, and The Gay & Lesbian Review along with book reviews in Entropy and School Library Journal. He holds degrees in Education, English, and Library Science from Western Michigan University, Aquinas College, University of Georgia, and Youngstown State University. He lives in Greenville, PA with his husband and their menagerie of pets named after Mad Men characters.