Tucker Leighty-Phillips’s beautiful collection of flash fiction, Maybe This Is What I Deserve, deals with the concept of absence. In dreamlike stories about absurd situations passed off as everyday normalcy, Leighty-Phillips’s forms skirt the boundaries of prose. They also flirt with the preciseness of poetry, that insatiable impulse to give word to the unspoken mysteries that poets strive for. Maybe This Is What I Deserve is poetry for the nonpoet, for the person who can’t understand, or refuses to follow, all the rules.
Even the shortest of Leighty Phillips’s stories depend on some sort of rising action. In “Tick’s Hair House,” all of 176 words, a house has grown hair! The protagonist, Tick, rolls with the absurdity: “Just what the place needed, she thought, pulling the rake from the shed to comb her home’s new mane.” For the reader, there is barely any time to adjust to the proposed scenario when Leighty-Phillips ratchets up the stakes: the neighbors quickly realize their own homes’ deficiencies and purchase hair for them. She’s proud of her home’s real hair while her neighbors can only fake it with house-toupees: “You ain’t fooling me, bozos! she [shouts], clipping one of those new-car-red-bows on her roof’s scalp.” Only when the entirety of the cul-de-sac boasts houses with hair does Leighty-Phillips pivot toward a conclusion, with Tick’s house slowly descending into baldness, “[its] hairline [receding] higher and higher up the shingles, past the satellite dish, [withering and graying] before falling out altogether. As quickly as it came, her home had gone bald.” Finally, in typical Leighty-Phillips fashion comes a quippy denouement: “She regretted lambasting her neighbors, their houses still beautiful and shaggy. The party house at the end had even graduated college and matured to a quiff.”
This collection operates on the premise of the absurd made normal, all players totally accepting of any odd circumstance. It’s a tradition in line with the surrealist writers of the late 20th century, including James Tate, Charles Simic, Russell Edson, and Mary Ruefle. Tate, especially, feels like a literary influence, as he is a writer who constantly underplayed the absurd in his prose poems, including the habit of naming his characters and manipulating them through fabulist situations. There are many examples of this sensibility in Leighty Phillips’s book. In “The Toddlers are Playing Airport Again,” all the characters “want to be Bob Mansfield, CEO.” The story continues, “They fight over his stock options, shoving one another until you step in and separate them, saying ‘Lacy, you were Bob Mansfield last time, why don’t we let Steve this time?’ “Mother’s Blessing” sets up a particularly weird scenario from the very beginning: “My adult daughter is in town for the holidays with her new boyfriend, a Royal Crown Cola Vending Machine.” In “The Street Performer,” Leighty-Phillips writes, “I am imitating a driveway, a long winding path covered in gravel…I am the best street performer, I can make myself incredibly broad or narrow, depending on the scene—but always very flat, unless of course I choose to be cobble stoned, or potholed, which always draws a reaction from crowds, as they feast on government ineptitude.” Behind the absurdity in these stories is something familiar, a recognizable human pain or struggle. And there’s a great sense of loss as well. Where there should be a boyfriend, there’s a vending machine; where there should be a friend, there’s head lice; where there should be a father, there’s chewing gum. Many of the characters in this book are lost or abandoned.
Leighty-Phillips’s short pieces are effective in their sparseness, in what they leave out. He seems to ask, What do we imagine when we encounter an empty space? And he speculates about how much more dreadful and real that emptiness is when it appears. The real work of these pieces though, is that they are tight—we don’t see the absence from a distance. It’s in the closeness that we feel a sense of the void. Many of these stories end abruptly, with a simulacrum of a resolution. All the elements are seemingly intact, but there is a deficiency, leaving both the characters and the reader in limbo, with heightened feelings left unresolved.
That this is a debut book, Leighty-Phillips fresh out of grad school, assures the continuation of the fabulist tradition of writers like Tate and Edson, whose work has recently gone out of fashion. In Leighty-Phillips’s writing there is a seriousness mixed with hilarity, tempered by short bursts that squeeze your heart or hint towards larger themes. Like his literary ancestors, Leighty Phillips employs a familiar framework for his imagined anecdotes: a paragraph that begins in absurdity but eventually pivots to a gut punch. Or he flips that construction, beginning with a serious inquiry that swerves to comic absurdity.
Maybe This Is What I Deserve is a short book, 34 pages, but it’s best read slowly, over time. The exception is the longest story in the book. “The Rumpelstiltskin Understudies (Play)” is a hilarious five-page-long story of a play directed by a fictional Tucker Leighty-Phillips. He depicts himself as an overly serious, deeply visionary community member who has no compunction about demanding bleeding performances from children. The story takes the form of a Wikipedia article, adding further mock-credibility to brace against the absurdity of the event, while the other pieces in Maybe This Is What I Deserve move so quickly that they unsettle the reader, toggling from one absurd situation to another. I’m interested in the tension created as we jump from story to story. It takes a second to get one of Leighty Phillips’s jokes, but it takes an hour to fully absorb one of his stories. I recommend savoring them one at a time, letting them echo in the back of your mind as you’re half-invested in some other task that, when examined closely, also feels absurd: pacing the pet food/beauty supply aisle at the grocery store, being patted down by a bored TSA agent at the airport, or having dinner with your mother as she spoons hot piles of a crumbling casserole onto your plate.