Paul A. Toth: The War’s Over, Let’s Go Shopping, preview of a coming attraction.
In the title story of Paul A. Toth’s soon-to-be-released short story collection, The War is Over, Let’s Go Shopping, the protagonist has bought a decaying hotel where he’d hoped to sit in the doorway and watch the same piece of sky all day. It seemed the perfect place: “The previous owner told him, ‘You don't need money, do you? Because if you do, don't buy this place. You know how people go to 7-11 every day and buy a dozen lottery tickets, not because they hope to win but because it gives them an excuse to hang around and bother the clerk? That's the only reason to buy this place. Except you're the clerk.’”
But suddenly, the joint is jumping. Quoth Toth: “They came and they kept coming, making the Seaside Inn profitable, when it was supposed to fail. They came and came, soldiers mostly, male and female soldiers with their wives and husbands and girlfriends and boyfriends. They brought no children; maybe they came to make them. But now that the war was almost over, winding down, it was getting worse. Tom Schimmel had planned for years and years to run a failing business, but still they came, pushed to the edges by suburbs, pushed by socioeconomic reasons beyond his understanding, pushed by events, by generational tides, by who knew what, but pushed, pushed, pushed on him.”
And then he continues: “They came with full pockets. They shopped in the giant mall not far away. They left the motel empty-handed and returned with bags and bags and bags. They were loud. Man, Jesus, they were loud. Loud and boisterous. These were boisterous people, full of fuck you, fucking right, fucking A, get the fuck out of here, fuck and fuck and fuck fuck fuck. Driving pickups, jeeps. Bullying. Bullying air and space. Well, this is what you want in a war, fillers, occupiers, takers, pushers. He could admire that. But not here. For Christ's sake, not here.”
Having, in recent years, not only interviewed Toth, but kept up a more less running correspondence with him, and in so doing, having become his sort of pen-pal friend, this turn of fictional events seems to me typical of Toth’s own journeys through life, that carry him—like most outstanding talents—through moments of abysmal withdrawal, like an express train barreling into a long tunnel, only to shortly resurface into the incredibly stunning scenery of his ingenious mind, where curiosity and a vigorous life-force consistently draw him back out into extraordinary bursts of luminous creativity and verve that result in astonishing works of art and introspective expression.
Like most of Toth’s short stories, this title piece is bare-bones brief (which makes the reader yearn for them to go on), psychologically incisive, and as kinetically intense as a one-two sucker punch that knocks the wind out of you. “The war was over. At eleven o'clock, a cheer went up, the women louder than the men... He appreciated a woman who could beat him senseless. It was a comfort to know that should some darkness one day rise within him, these women could defeat it. It made him feel close to them....” They are stories meant solely to be read in one sitting. Brief, stripped, nano-moments of revelation caught in a stunning snapshot—like a last-second stag in your headlights.
In “Psychologically Ultimate Seashore”, Toth paints a portrait of quiet desperation, to which he is clearly no stranger: His grasp of it is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever been in its grip and his mastery of its description is enough to make the savvy reader sweat, hyperventilate and, perhaps, leave town in search of a new life. We visit Janet, the protagonist, at the precise moment in which such desperation has finally overwhelmed her, a pivotal point at which she must do something—anything—to break the mundane spell of Everyday Life, or perish. The delight of Toth’s telling of this intimate portrait is, precisely, that he doesn’t tell it, but paints the hyper-realistic scene with a brush so fine that the reader is transported inside the frame and assailed on all sides by the stifling climate and the need to join Janet in finding the exit sign.
“Ukrainamerica” returns to a recurrent theme in Toth’s repertoire: capitalism and communism both run amok. Getting into the skin, so to speak, of a Ukrainian girl imagining herself to be a girl from Ohio, in turn imagining what life would be like for a girl in the Ukraine, would seem quite a stretch for a middle-age Midwestern American author. Unless, that is, you realize that Toth is from Flint, Michigan—hometown too of renowned anti-establishment filmmaker, social critic and writer Michael Moore—a place that might be considered the poster city for US manufacturing’s demise and the aching heart of the steel belt turned rust belt in both Toth and Moore’s formative years. Perhaps only an American from the heartbroken streets of Flint (or Toledo, or Cleveland) could truly understand the gutting transition of the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism to the subsequent advent of a rabid Kaptalism that would prove more grueling for many than the system it replaced.
From her new job at a spanking new McDonalds the protagonist wonders if this is how a girl working under the golden arches in Ohio might feel. Ann Carol, Anna Kaslouska...which is which? They mix and mingle in a semi-reality as confusing as a Ukraine without communism or anything viable to replace it, or as an Ohio (or Flint) brought to its knees, with castrated unions incapable of stemming the flow of greedy caricature-capitalism that shuts down factories and ships jobs abroad in the name of The Almighty Free Market. Ann/Anna and her broken father Alex (who has always amused himself after hard days at the factory by letting the names of the American states roll off of his tongue) graphically represent just such a limbo. And Ann/Anna now clings to the golden arches like a shipwreck victim to the gunwale of a lifeboat, hoping to be pulled aboard. “What is this goddamn music?” Alex rages at the piped-in McMuzak in the transplanted American fast-food restaurant. “It’s soothing,” says Ann/Anna, and, she adds, “It’s American.” But for Alex, “This isn’t the Ohio I dreamed of. This is a nightmare.” To Ann/Anna’s mind, however, it’s a neutral zone between dream and harsh reality, where she might as well be in the America she and Alex have always imagined, since in a unipolar world, its caricature-surrogate has become inescapable.
This theme returns in the surreal “Lumpen Proletariat” in which Larry Jones of Pittsburgh evolves into Dimitrius Dzhamgerchinov of the Balkans who heads a mythical march across America from Fort Kent, Maine to Chula Vista, California, that pauses in the semi-metropolis of Bay City, Michigan, where he and his constituents demonstrate without chants or slogans, their blank banners flying to spread the word of their message-less message. It’s a story of lost identity and loss of trust in an amnesiac leadership.
And lost stories, lost identities are another recurrent element in Tothworld, as witnessed in the zany storyline of “Daughters of the American Sexual Revolution” in which the narrator describes her exasperatingly bland and self-protective man as ‘story-less’: “Poor Frank's parents had too much story of their own, so they left their son to his own devices. He didn't have any. Now he's forever trying to squeeze himself into stories, but like a guy with size twenty-three feet, he never finds a proper fit.” Or in “Kite Letter”, in which the protagonist confesses: “I exaggerate. My memories are painted in the style of the 19th century; I always picture myself wearing a peculiar hat, while the women's skirts are so layered and ornate they cannot possibly have been worn by a member of my generation. Perhaps such exaggeration reflects my thinking in those days, for I was a romantic. When young, I would fly kites, attaching to the strings the kind of love letters any girl would cherish.” Or in the frank dialogue and alcohol haze of “Kangaroo Court” that will not be unfamiliar to readers of Raymond Carver, or of—and to—other writers who have obsessively sought solace in drink and found, instead, oblivion, loss and sorrow: “I finished two more bottles. I climbed the stairs to my bedroom and took a nap that lasted the rest of the day. I slept well in a drunken way, dreaming of my few months with Missy, before Roy stole her from me. My dreams told me he was right when he said I had brought it on myself, as each time I appeared on the movie screen of my eyelids, I was drunk. I saw the time I crashed into her father's convertible when picking her up, and the time we went to a dance and I passed out in her arms, dropping through her grasp to the floor. But I also remembered the fine moments, when I thought she would be mine forever, when I held her in bed and believed I could be forgiven anything, that all would be forgotten, that angels would fly in formation with me through life, even if I occasionally walked into walls.”
These and the other scintillating stories in this book (by the author of the novels Fizz, Fishnet, Finale and Airplane Novel) are a veritable showcase for the concise and subtle craft of a sort of “watchwork” writer whose faux aloofness belies a raging zest for life and minutely detailed attention to the people and places around him, which borders on the obsessive, while investing profound empathy in every line he writes.