Book Review: Jack Pendarvis’ Movie Stars

Jack-PendarvisAuthor, former columnist, and story editor for the exceptional (and long running) animated series Adventure Time, Jack Pendarvis, has a gift for blunt, ironic, and forceful language. This is on full display in his latest collection of short fiction: Movie Stars. The title implies a look at glamour and glory, a topic Pendarivs, as someone in the entertainment industry with multiple awards, might be familiar. However, Movie Stars has little to do with Hollywood and much to do with lost, disparate souls scattered throughout an American South infused with William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Pendarvis' own recollections and fascinations. A representative sample comes in the story "Cancel My Reservation." Here, a lost soul wanders for something (perhaps meaning) but can barely comprehend his own existence, let alone his own body: "He was not good with details. He had even become fat without knowing it. Thinking back, he really couldn't imagine not noticing that his clothes were so tight, not wondering why he had to wear his shirts untucked and unbutton his pants, why he didn't wear a belt anymore and his knees hurt so much, why it was hard to rise from a couch and how come he had so much trouble breathing and broke the toilet seat." What fails this character is imagination. Something in his circumstances has stripped him of it or, perhaps, it was something never gifted, much like someone born without a limb or a second kidney. However, imagination is something this collection packs in by the crate load. Yet, Movie Stars is not a collection filled with the sensationalized grotesqueries of past Southern fiction that has the region take on the sepia tinged hued of a Barnum & Bailey freak show. Instead, it's a grotesque piece of humor, filled with innuendo, wordplay, and puns aplenty rather than sheer shock and awe. Movie Stars tacks towards a reliance on quotidian phrases and aphorisms. Yet, Pendarivs satisfyingly undercuts these potential cliches into a series of punchlines. Consider a later entry, "Your Cat Can Be a Movie Star!", where a milquetoast house husband confronts a shifty barfly that promises stardom for the man's feline companion. Reflecting on the dangerous man about town, the husband notes: "He put such wild things in the air as the veiled suggestion that he had once had to eat part of his own body to survive. Well, this guy is obviously full of beans, comes the swift judgement." This collection amuses, entertains, and pokes fun at a style of writing that has become enshrined in American letters. For those with a taste for wry prose and exceptionally compressed storytelling, Movie Stars is a read to snatch up.
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James Orbesen

James Orbesen is a writer and professor living in Chicago. His first book on the comics of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is forthcoming from Sequart. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Guernica, Salon, Jacobin, Chicago Review of Books, PopMatters, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere.