All the regular caveats and such. You’ll notice several short story collections and two books from 2017 I finally caught up with. But first, the Book of the Year.
The rest of the Best listed alphabetically.
Here are some books from 2018 that are worthy of your money as well and, again, listed in no particular order: “Know Me From Smoke” by Matt Phillips, “Welcome to HolyHell” by Math Bird, “The Science of Paul” by Aaron Philip Clark, “Fast Bang Booze” by Lawrence Maddox, “Down the River Unto The Sea” by Walter Mosley, “Accidental Outlaws” by Matt Phillips, “May” by Marietta Miles, “Knuckledragger” by Rusty Barnes, and “Breaking Glass” by Alec Cizak.
The first book I read of Grant Jerkins was “Abnormal Man” and if you are ready for it, man, you find yourself swimming with some creepy characters–and not in the Stephen King way, more in the way of sexual predators and violent men already pushed over the edge. In my review of Jerkins’s book, I said that “we are not driving by a car crash and staring — no, we are in the car crash and slowly dying.” As far as contemporary crime fiction, Jerkins’s “Abnormal Man” sits alongside Jake Hinkson’s classic “Hell on Church Street”.
Earlier this year, ABC Group Documentation published Jerkins’s short story collection, “A Scholar of Pain“. It’s of no surprise that these stories are as good as they are disturbing. In my review, I wrote, “these stories … combined with the author’s other works begin to fill in the canvas–if you tilt your head so and squint your eyes a bit, yeah, you begin to see something.” All of which leads to my first question.
David: After reading two of your books, “Abnormal Man” and “A Scholar of Pain”, I need to ask, “Are you okay?” I’m concerned.
Grant: I am. I’m okay.
When I first started writing fiction, I thought I would write horror, because that was what I mostly read. Back then, I didn’t even know ‘noir’ was a thing. A genre. I found out about it online, the community of writers and readers. Now noir is everywhere, everybody does it. Kind of like how being gender-fluid is a thing now. Maybe you don’t fit comfortably into a traditional gender role, then you get online and everybody is talking about being gender fluid, and you think, oh, that fits me. I discovered the term noir fit me. I think my writing is quintessentially noir. So, yeah, I’m okay, I just like dark shit.
David: In an interview with Jedidiah Ayres, you said, “Even though people are breaking laws left and right in my stories, these people are crossing a line. Either personally, or culturally—they are crossing a line. Actual criminals live on the other side of that line (and cops too, really). The rest of us just visit there. We transgress.”
Most crime fiction from the point of view of the criminal, they always have a code that they abide by, they don’t tolerate rape, pedophilia, or the killing of children and animals. With your last two books, you don’t shy away from those that journey in these dark areas. Can you talk about your attraction to these voices and the need to tell their stories?
Grant: A code they live by? Maybe James Cagney type criminals. But you’re right, most of us draw the line at rape/pedophilia/child killing/animal cruelty. In fact, rape is kind of iffy. I’d take that off the list of unforgivable crimes. So we’re left with pedophilia/child killing/animal cruelty as the things other criminals won’t tolerate. Unless they’re pedophiles too, then they do tolerate it. Unless they are your fellow animal abusers, then they’re cool with it. Darkness is drawn to darkness.
What is the point in writing about a pedophile? As you said, even other criminals despise them. I think it only becomes interesting in a Venn diagram sort of way. We are all in agreeance that these are vile, abhorrent crimes. But isn’t it interesting to see where our humanity overlaps with those we most despise? It’s uncomfortable. One of the points of Abnormal Man is that in two centuries of medical and scientific advance, not much has changed in our understanding of criminal behavior. Maybe I’m daring the reader to feel empathy toward the most despicable among us. To look at the area where our lives overlap. It’s a difficult subject.
To put it into a religious context, we have to somehow reconcile the fact that these people—like us—are created in God’s image. Every human life has intrinsic value.
Switching back to a secular view, what fascinates me—what I’m drawn to—isn’t deviant behavior; it’s that spot on the Venn diagram where we all overlap. The area where you and I and the teenage boy who likes to set dogs on fire—where we are the same.
Or it could just be that I like dark shit.
David: When I was reading “A Scholar of Pain”, I had to put the book down between stories not only to digest what I just read, but also to catch my breath. You’re considered too dark by those that consume the more popular police procedurals, psychological thrillers, and to catch a serial killer books. A lot of writers grasp onto the formula and I don’t imagine you have give much thought about writing that “rootable” character. You demand a lot of your readers making them move forward without the classic “rootable” character. Do you have any expectations of your readers?
Grant: This question catches me off guard. I guess the answer is no. I have no expectations of my readers. I’m surprised they exist. And glad.
David: Following the previous question, what should the readers expectations should be of you as a writer?
Grant: They should expect to be entertained. They should expect me to try to offer them something of significance. I might fail, but hopefully you can at least see I was trying. I don’t want to waste your time or mine.
David: You had several books published with one of the big publishers and then they turned down Abnormal Man. What made you decide to go with a small niche publisher, ABC Group Documentation, that no one has heard of?
Grant: I was in a unique position in that I knew I was going to go with a small publisher. “Abnormal Man” was never going to be brought out by a big publisher. (Exactly why is another story.) So, I knew it would be a small publisher and I needed to decide which one fit me best. Let me bring this back to my stupid ‘gender fluid’ comparison above. Yeah, I’m noir, and there are lots of small publishers who specialize in dark crime fiction. But I don’t necessarily feel like I fit in the traditional dark crime mode. Get it? I’m genre fluid. In going with ABC Group Documentation (the very name is genre-eschewing), “Abnormal Man” became their first published book. So I ended up helping create their identity, rather than having a publisher push their identity on me. On top of that, I found a muse and lifelong friend in the imprint’s founder, Jeremy Stabile.
David: Give me five books or authors to read, genre doesn’t matter.
Grant: Genre doesn’t matter? Wave that flag.
The first book that comes to my mind—for whatever reason—is “Miss Lonelyhearts” by Nathanael West. I love that book. It’s this incredibly pure distillation of the human heart. Have you ever heard of Vantablack? It’s this weird man-made dark stuff created out of nanotubes. It’s the darkest artificial substance known to exist. It absorbs 99.965% of radiation in the visible spectrum. That’s how dark Miss Lonelyhearts is. And somehow manages to be funny too.
My second, ha-ha, I can’t believe I’m putting this book on a list (other than a book-burning list), is a novel called “Bad Ronald” by Jack Vance. There was a TV movie based on it in the 70’s, but you gotta read the book. Ronald is very, very bad. He rapes and murders a little girl—rather nonchalantly—on his way home from a high school pool party. Ronald’s mother hides him from the police in the walls of their house. Creates a secret room. Mom eventually dies, and the new owners move their family into the house, not knowing Ronald lives in the walls. There’s just something about that book that freaks me out. It’s written in this bizarre Tom Swift style. Like: I shall persevere, Ronald thought bravely. The juxtaposition of that naive children’s-book voice with the truly wicked things Ronald does… It just kills me.
Next is the novel “Better“. It’s by John O’Brien. He wrote “Leaving Las Vegas”. You should read all his stuff. There’s not much of it. He committed suicide young.
I’m really into Octavia Butler. She’s science fiction. Dark science fiction. But fluid. I would recommend her story collection, “Bloodchild“, to start.
I just noticed everybody I listed is dead. With that in mind, last up is Jake Hinkson. To the best of my knowledge he’s still alive. I hope this doesn’t curse him. I’m simply enthralled with his work. Start anywhere on his backlist. There’s not a bum one in the lot. But my favorite might be “Posthumous Man“. Dude’s dark. I’d hate to see where he and I overlap on a Venn diagram.
Thanks for stopping by and reading our interview with Grant Jerkins.
Grant Jerkins is the author of “A Very Simple Crime“, which The New York Times called “An extremely nasty study in abnormal psychology.” The prize-winning debut was selected by Book of the Month Club, Mystery Guild, QPB, The Literary Guild, and Doubleday Book Club; and has since been optioned for film by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Kazan.
In the Introduction to his collection of short stories, A Scholar of Pain, Grant Jerkins counters a writer friend’s argument that collections are “vanity projects” saying “I’ve always found short stories to be the best way to get to know a writer and a litmus of that author’s mettle. If I am found lacking, let it be documented. But you will know me.” Short stories expose the author multiple times throughout the collection whereas glimpses into the writer are only fleeting in a novel. Even stories written on assignment or for an anthology, these stories, if good, combine with the author’s other works begin to fill in the canvas – if you tilt your head so and squint your eyes a bit, yeah, you begin to see something.
“NSFW”, flash fiction originally appearing in Shotgun Honey, opens Grant Jerkins’ A Scholar of Pain. It is the unheard tale of love from one office worker to another. He tells her of how he snuck into her apartment one day while she was at work and he had called in sick. “I had a bowel movement in your commode. And I did something to your toothbrush so that you will have molecules of me inside of you, too.” I chose these line as to show that Jerkins’ stories are not so much about characters out of societal norms, rather their emotions are intensified, these are stories of actions to dark to dream of.
Grant Jerkins’ world in A Scholar of Pain is filled with the strange and the disturbing: cough-syrup addicts, a man who peers under women’s skirts, a relationship with a life-size doll, hoarders, religious fanatics, and others. These are the people who periodically appear as articles in your social media feed and you shake your head. Jerkins gives a voice to the forgotten and misunderstood.
The book cannot be read in a staccato-like rhythm, instead the stories force the reader to put down the book and pause not so much for understanding – you know what you’ve just read, there’s no going back now – but for you to bring yourself back to your own familiarity and the inevitability of your life.
It could be said that some of the stories in Grant Jerkins’ A Scholar of Pain might be too much for some readers. Given the popularity of serial killer books, films and TV shows, I find this a bit odd. Maybe it’s because Jerkins’ characters are so close to our lives making them too real for many, acting on one bad desire then sends you down a Florida Man rabbit hole of no escape. There are stories in A Scholar of Pain that are more easily consumed like “EBT”, “Regular, Normal People” and “Wichita Lineman”. The good news is that they are only a gateway drug to the more disturbing stories like “Eula Shook” and “The Starry Night”.
Grant Jerkins’ A Scholar of Pain is a beautifully written collection of stories about passion and darkness. You will remember this book.
When people profess to like dark crime novels, they often mention works by James Lee Burke or some other hardboiled writers like Hammet, Chandler or Ellroy. But that’s as dark as they read, as dark as they want to get. But the darkness in Grant Jerkins’ Abnormal Man (ABC Group Documentation / Down & Out Books) is darker than these folks would like.
If you dig dark fiction, chances are it is more distasteful and disturbing that you expect. In a typical dark crime fiction book, the basement is dark and you may hear some moving around. In Abnormal Man, the basement may be dark, but you are forced to witness the demolition of the human soul while someone stands at the bottom of the steps masturbating.
If you are of a queasy stomach or basically weak-kneed, Abnormal Man should not even be touched by you. Words should be able to describe the unsettling nature of Jerkins’ book, but I’ve been reaching for them and have failed. If you cannot read a book where a character that is a latent-pubescent 18-year-old boy who likes to masturbate to fire, then this book is not for you. If you cannot read a book where a twenty-something-year-old man who has a violent rage that surpasses Tarantino violence, then this book is not for you. If you cannot read a book with a 40-something-year-old muumuu-wearing child molester that carries items in the folds of his skin, then this book might not be for you.
Three paragraphs and some 200 words into a review, all I have given the reader are warnings rather than words of praise for Abnormal Man. And words of praise should be bestowed upon Jerkins’ latest novel. Abnormal Man exists in the broken human condition and Jerkins’ words burn the characters’ existence into our hippocampus, never to be unremembered. The rarity of this book is that we are not driving by a car crash and staring — no, we are in the car crash and slowly dying.
The hall has emptied, and you have ten minutes before your meeting with the school psychologist. You head for the boys bathroom.
You take the last stall, the handicapped one. This is your favorite not because it is the biggest, but because the lock on it still works and because it is directly under the overhead ventilation fan.
You unroll a handful of toilet paper from the dispenser. You already know the perfect amount. You wad it up into a ball about the size of a rodent brain with a bit angling off from it like a brainstem. You will hold it from the brainstem.
From your jeans pocket you extract a yellow Bic lighter, stolen from your stepfather, Harvey Peruro. You set the toilet paper rodent brain afire. The trick is to get a clean burn so that there is no smoke. Regardless of the ventilation fan, if there is smoke, it will permeate the bathroom and give you away. You watch the flame take hold, and as soon as it does, the pain in your stomach vanishes. You do not know if it is simply that you forget about the pain, or if fire acts as a painkiller. It doesn’t matter. The flame is beautiful, calming. It pulsates like an orange rose. A burning blossom. A fire flower.
And then, still standing over the toilet, you use your other hand to unbuckle and drop your pants, push down your underwear, and it feels good to have your genitals exposed to the air. No shame. No self-consciousnesses.
Finishing Abnormal Man has made me want to read other works by Jerkins even though I know none of his other books will be like this one. Penguin/Berkley severed their ties with Jerkins after reading Abnormal Man and Jerkins uses their rejection as a blurb on the book’s Amazon page.
I’m afraid that I really didn’t like it. While it is certainly well-written, as are all of Grant’s books, I found it to be too dark and off-putting. There really isn’t anyone to “root” for and the subject matter is pretty distasteful.That being said, I would hate to end our publishing relationship with Grant at this point. For me, personally, and as a company as well, we are really committed to building Grant’s career.
Since beginning this blog last year, Grant Jerkins’ Abnormal Man is among a handful of some 70 books I have read which their darkness seems to elevate them above all others. The others are Paul Heatley’s The Motel Whore, Marietta Miles’ Route 12, and Jake Hinkson’s Hell on Church Street.