Bud Smith is the author of Teenager (Tyrant Books, 2018), Double Bird (Maudlin House, 2018), WORK (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017), Dust Bunny City (Disorder Press, 2017), Calm Face (House of Vlad, 2016), among others. You should definitely follow him on Twitter because, seriously, the guy is funny and over all very entertaining: @Bud_Smith. If you would like to get to know him a bit better, and I recommend you do, his author site is located here: budsmithwrites.com
WORK is the first project I read by Bud Smith after discovering him on Twitter through his interactions with Disorder Press. Although I will be focusing on Double Bird, his newest project, I highly recommend WORK as well. It is autobiographical, detailing the eventful and strange life that one leads while working heavy construction. Notably, a large amount of the project, if not all of it, was written on Bud’s cell phone during breaks on the job. This fact humbled me greatly. It is a book that will make you want to get up and create something, even if it’s just jotting down anecdotes on your phone over an egg salad sandwich while you’re on break.
After being utterly smitten by WORK, I was excited to see Bud was releasing a short story collection from Maudlin House. I sought to purchase Double Bird immediately, only to find it was already sold out.
I reached out to Bud, and he was kind enough to send me a copy so I could write this review.
Thanks, Bud. You’re good people.
The first story of the Double Bird collection, titled “Tiger Blood”, read very similar to what I was expecting. A man and a woman on a date; a theme that was explored in WORK as well. However, “Tiger Blood” makes a drastic turn to fantastical from realistic towards the end: “We’re sober and I have car insurance right now and a current registration and even a driver’s license and this is America and I really like this girl and want to impress her so we leave the restaurant without paying and break into the science lab at the community college.” The events that transpire at the community college lab are strange and wonderful, but I’ll leave that for you to uncover independently. This deviation from the standard I had set for Double Bird caught me off guard in the best of ways.
The surreal elements used in the collection are one of its strongest qualities. There are societies beneath the crust of the Earth, giant eagles, resurrected brothers, and many more absurd and creative moments weaved into these literary stories. The impossibilities that occur highlight the normalcy of some of the less immediately relatable characters and also serve as a source of redemption. In “Birthday!”, for example, the main character, Michelle, is a deadbeat who can’t figure life out until a giant egg she comes across leads her to companionship and freedom. Very literally, absurdity saves this woman.
In other stories, like “Rek-kek-kek”, absurdity is used to highlight a specific character trait—here it is the love that an unnamed man has for a woman. The character travels forty hours in a car that wouldn’t even start at the beginning of the piece, traverses from Mexico to Guatemala to Honduras to Nicaragua and finally to Costa Rica, cuts through jungles with a sword, and continues by donkey deeper into South America to find an old lover he wishes to reunite with. This adventure is fantastical, borderline entirely impossible, and is acted out by a normal figure who eventually holes up in the same city as the nameless narrator. As a reader, the fantastical elements didn’t just act as an emphasizing variable. They were also something fun and interesting to read. It was entertaining and, after all, isn’t that the most important factor?
The collection as a whole is character based. For the most part, each story focuses on one or two characters, and uses character interaction to showcase the underlying theme or personality of the piece. You never know what’s going to happen because everything is possible. At the same time, you forget anything is possible because the characters are so real; it is difficult for one to imagine an impossible thing might happen to them. It is an incredibly engaging, seamless, back and forth between reality and absurdity. This blending of reality and fantasy made me question the nature of my own world, of the people I see on a daily basis, by engaging my imagination. I read about a janitor with a magic conch shell and it made me wonder what my janitor was like outside of work. What weird things does he encounter?
What I appreciated most in WORK was its focus on average people. The characters are those you might see in front of you in line at a 7-11. They’re the workers you don’t see that maintain your power grid so you have lights and television. This element continues in Double Bird. Almost every character is a mundane person put in a good fantastical circumstance. Readers will encounter drug addicts, crooked cops, future lawyers, chiropractors, lovers, people who can’t hold it together, a janitor who moonlights at whatever profession he deems appropriate, and other unexplainable weirdness. Double Bird explores the idea that your next door neighbor, the rapidly balding guy who wears polos and khakis everyday, could be haunted by the ghost of his divorce attorney, or be the former lead guitarist of a famous metal band.
What really moved me about this collection was its focus on the low to middle class lifestyle. It was the idea that even when broke, living in squalor, you can love and be loved. You can be confused by college students even though you’re a heroin addict. Double Bird is written about the seemingly unimportant, background characters. And it takes those background characters and makes the reader sympathize with them. It humanizes them, and showcases the eventful nature of the unseen world everybody else is walking by without noticing.
Since the characters that make up Double Bird are such a driving force for the collection, let’s take some time to introduce a few. One of my favorite characters was the miserable and angsty unnamed narrator from “Everyone (Everyone, Everyone, Everyone)”. The character, in true child-genius fashion, throws a town into disarray when he writes an obituary for every citizen following the death of his parents. After a chaotic series of events which lead to the boy christening every individual with a fresh identity, he addresses his fellow citizens, saying, “Please shut up please shut up please can you shut the fuck up forever—when I catch my breath, I’ll kill you all again.”
In “Everybody’s Darling”, the reader is introduced to a heroin addict who maintains a passive voice and calm mannerisms despite his terrible injuries and bizarre circumstance of his condition when he regains consciousness. At the end of the story, there’s a dialogue between the addict and an aspiring lawyer that goes like this:
“Why did the cops beat you up?”
“Caught them being cops,” I said, and laughed, “they like to be cops in secret.”
“They beat you without due process?”
“Um, maybe, I don’t know. What’s the process like for beating somebody up?”
It’s this subtle humor, the dry but still emotionally charged moments, that I found so mesmerizing about this collection. A heroin addict and a law student becoming brothers in arms against a corrupt system; what more can you ask for?
This collection is strange. It’s jarring, emotionally compelling, and rooted in the themes of daily life. From beginning to end the reader glides between worlds that build on each other. The last story, detailing the death of the author, concludes the project in a comedic and stylish way. You are born on a random date and eventually you end up decomposed, dusted. This is the cycle of life we all know too intimately, a cycle with various shortcuts and backroads.
For now, I will leave you with a quote from “Free Bird”, the last story in the collection:
“The years crawled on. New Presidents. Pop Songs. Flavors of soda. Genders. Joys. Pains. Sorrows. Triumphs. Some people left Earth. Other people came to Earth. My skeleton collapsed. The soggy soil was rich with life, just not mine.”
Cavin Bryce is a twenty-one year old student of English attending the University of Central Florida. He spends his time off sitting on the back porch, sipping sweet tea and watching his hound dog dig holes across a dilapidated yard. His work has been published in Hobart, CHEAP POP, OCCULUM, and elsewhere. He tweets at @cavinbryce.
We couldn’t let Bud go without asking him a few follow-up questions:
BRYCE: How long have you been writing and when did you decide to actively pursue publishing? Why?
SMITH: I used to play in bands but one of my close friends and bandmates died and I worried about losing other people, so I went off alone and started writing more and more seriously. I started trying to get published I think, 12 years ago or so?
BRYCE: What’s it like balancing the social dynamics of heavy construction and the literary world? Has there ever been an interesting intersection of the two?
SMITH: Not so much. The two things don’t intersect that often. Most writers have interesting jobs, or I’m interested in them, it’s just that usually society pretends like anything that’s not glitz and helicopters is not worth talking about. I’ve written about working construction a bit in WORK (CCM, 2017), and I’m going to write a novel about it too, what it’s like being in this place, doing a big project from start to finish at a petrochemical plant.
BRYCE: Did you have an image of writers before you started writing and how did getting involved in the community impact that image?
SMITH: I thought writers were broke, heartbroken people and for the most part I still agree with that initial idea. Except getting to know them they’re actually not broke, they’re massively in debt and heart broken. Being just broke at zero would be way ahead for 99% of writers living and dead.
BRYCE: What came first, fiction or non-fiction? Do you have a particular affinity for either?
SMITH: Fiction came first and I have a great affinity for it. You can do anything in fiction. In non-fiction you’re limited to reality. I like reality but the uncanny is a bigger jacuzzi.
BRYCE: In stories like “Rek-rek-kek” and “Random Balloons” there are characters that are observing somebody else, whether they’re destroying a street or just trying to start their car. Is there an anecdote of someone you’ve seen doing something bizarre that never made it into a piece that you think would be fun to share?
SMITH: Not yet. I try to document everything I can and put it in a story somewhere as I go along. Or tweet about it and maybe copy paste those tweets into a word document I build the beginning skeletons of bad poems in.
BRYCE: The two stories “Agartha” and “Leaving Las Vegas” are right next to each other in Double Bird and both explore the idea of escaping society. Do you think this is a natural desire, and what aspects of modern life what you like to get away from? If you were to run away where you would run away to? What would you bring?
SMITH: I’m like everybody. I want to smash my computer and my phone and my car and my TV and my entire house and my entire life and my past and future, each and everything. I’d like to destroy it all but go on living pain free and no sorrow. Wherever I’d go I’d bring Rae because she is the happiest thing I know. The rest of the family can come too, they just have to agree to be quiet for two hours a day. Wait, while I have the chance, three hours a day.
BRYCE: Two dogs in the collection are both named Enoch, what’s the significance of this name to you, for a dog specifically?
SMITH: It’s bible stuff. Enoch is the son of Cain, who murdered his brother Able in the Book of Genesis. Dogs are the son of man, and man is murderous, but trying to be better. There’s to more to it too but I’ll be quiet. Enoch is a good boy yeah he is go, get your ball Enoch.
BRYCE: Do you have any future projects in the work you’d like to discuss, any aspirations you’re reaching towards?
SMITH: I’m working with Gian from Tyrant Books on edits for my next novel, Teenager, coming out March of 2019.
Copies of Double Bird can be purchased through Maudlin House.