A couple of days ago mention was made here of a new book recently brought home. In December of last year Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a small but beautiful book of “stories” by Lou Beach titled 420 Characters: Stories. The catch is, each of the stories in this book of 176 pages is limited to 420 characters, including letters, spaces and punctuation. They were each written as a status update on the author’s Facebook page.
Facebook status updates and numbers aside, the format of 420 Characters is jet fuel to a longtime personal attraction for a couple of reasons. It started with the discovery of an even shorter format in the style of Japanese haiku, a type of poem impressive for its three lines of seventeen syllables sparsely hinting at an unvoiced thought. There always seems to be more to it, that the reader is being encouraged to participate in filling in blanks toward the creation of a bigger picture. And then Nobel Laureate Kawabata Yasunari produced over the years a collection of stories ultimately called Palm of the Hand Stories. Most of those stories are a page long, the longest no more than three, and like the traditional haiku form, emphasize the power of reduced words in calling the reader to greater participation.
Lou Beach is in the same stream of style. Like the haiku poets he gives himself a goal of pitching a tiny story into its greatest arc within the space of 420 characters. Kirkus Reviews described Beach’s stories as: ‘An adroit experiment that marries linguistic restraint to literary cool.’ Within the small space prescribed, Beach writes about criminals, bimbos, animals, small town girls, divorcées, sentient objects and two dozen others acting out their moments in a mini-world that fronts for something much wider, much deeper. The reader jumps from the surreal to the lyrical, to the puzzling and bizarre, and then suddenly back to chickens who smoke cigarettes. Beach has such color and tone in his tiny palette of possibles that the reader is alternately dazzled, bumped, soothed and then slapped in the face by these stories that take up no more than a third of the page.
Lou Beach is an artist/illustrator, and now with the publication of 420 Characters: Stories, a writer. He passed his early years in Rochester, New York until the 60s led him to California where he has lived ever since, happily married to photographer Issa Sharp, with two children, a dog, a cat, a backyard full of cactus and an orange tree. Asked about himself, Beach says…“I was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, killed me a bear when I was only three. No, wait..I was born in Germany of Polish parents, came to the US when I was only four, spent my youth in Rochester, New York, riding my bike, building snow forts, throwing chestnuts at the kid down the street. I was a fair student, no great shakes, disappointing several teachers by not realizing my “full potential.” Higher education was a two-year community college affair followed by a year of night school at a state university. I did not graduate or learn much (in class).
Below are five of the stories from 420 Characters.
‘The gunnysack hangs from the pommel, full of sparked ore. I let Shorty sip from the stream, long neck arching in the sun. There is a ghost in the cottonwood I sit under to reread your letters. It tries to sniff the pressed flowers you sent from the garden in Boston, but the scent is gone. The petals and paper, envelope, all smell like campfire now.’
‘Cheap and gaudy as jellybeans, hard as a jawbreaker. Candy Nelson sat on the bench in front of Jessups Hardware, filing her nails. Discomfited by yet another yeast infection, she crossed and uncrossed her legs, finally just opened them like a book, displaying to the illiterate Luther Choate, driving by, a page from heaven, causing him to lose control of his pickup and run over a red hound that was crossing the road.’
‘The nurse left. Ann’s eyes were closed so I dumped her meds into my shirt pocket, snapped it shut. I looked around the room, put her laptop in my backpack. I leaned over to give her a goodbye peck on the forehead. She smelled like her next bath was going to be in the Ganges. Her eyes flew open, she grabbed my wrist and said: “Ronnie, give me a smoke.”’
‘FOR-EV-UH. She had it tattooed in a little arc over her left boob, like a military patch. She’d punch me in the arm, punctuate each syllable, leave a blue mark. Told me that’s how long her love would last, shouted it out. After a few months she seemed distant, took off one night for Tulsa with the drummer from a hair band. I went to Skin’N’Ink, asked Mooney if he could make me a tattoo of a bruise, put it up on my arm.’
‘“Are you my mommy?” said the little blue egg. “No, dear. You are a plastic trinket full of sweets,” said the brown hen. “My baby is over there,” and she pointed to a pink marshmallow chick being torn apart and devoured by a toddler. The hen screamed and woke up, her pillow wet with sweat, the sheets twisted around her legs. “Christ, I hate that dream.” She reached for a smoke.’
420 Characters: Stories is a book that could be on anyone’s ‘Best’ list.