Addicts & Basements, by Robert Vaughan. Civil Coping Mechanisms, February 2014. 142 pages. $13.95, paper.
Robert Vaughan’s Addicts & Basements is a slim volume of flash fiction and poetry coming in at just under one hundred fifty pages. I’m not going to lie, that knowledge alone led me into some kind of garnered skepticism, as usually these types of collections are relegated to the I-have-all-this-shit-lying-around-might-as-well-make-a-book-of-it category. That’s not the case with Vaughan’s book. From the first line of the first story, “The Femur,” I was taken in, wanting to hit the last sentence on the last page as soon as the first had ended—I read the whole book in one sitting, is what I’m getting at—and on three separate occasions.
So here’s that first sentence:
When my ex Fed-Exed me a small box of her pubic hairs it ranked right up there among the strangest things I’d ever received in the mail.
A carefully constructed first sentence, indeed: pubic hair in the mail is strange, but by telling us that it merely “ranked up there among the strangest,” we are left wondering what it was that ranked right up there beside it. And he tells us. It’s quite a bit stranger, morbid, and nostalgic and sweet, just like the pubic hair—a femur, a bone from grandpa’s dead body, his grandpa—the narrator’s grandpa. And from there it moves into how he kept it on his shelf through college, eventually feeling like the bone was their bone, together, a shared bone, grandson and grandfather. The collection is fraught with these displays of precision, these startling revelations of language and storytelling, these abnormal, strange things made to seem so normal, so human—Vaughan has a vision in each and every line, and he delivers in so few words.
Addicts & Basements is divided into three parts: “Addicts,” “&,” and then “Basements” closes it out.
I don’t feel like the division into three parts was necessary, though, because the individual stories and poems each punch you in the gut in similarly different ways, with tons of force and a lot of feeling, yet they’re all completely different narratives, each section a distorted mirror of the last. The thing that holds them together is the constant human ache echoing throughout. Who cares what the motions are getting us there, poem or story? They’re equally important. Everything here is beautiful and ugly in equal measure. A majority of the content in this books hints at abuse in some form or another but hardly ever explicitly, which in turn grants the content a far more disturbing tone than even the most cheap thrills afforded in horror or thriller flicks, though by leaps and bounds, these stories and poems delve deeper than the deepest of dramas. This, from “Bruised Fruit,” is a nice example of Vaughan’s taut, evocative language, spare and spun into domestic, ethereal frenzy:
We all want the same things. All except for Tammy who lives in squalor. She ended up with that butcher Mario who treats her like one of his carcasses.
Definitely a minimalist, Vaughan at his best occupies a space all his own. His prose is far too poetic to place him in the Carver school of minimalism, and his poems far too prose-ish to land him in a place next to Pound or Stanford or Plath or Whitman, though there is something of all of them in every word spilled blood-like-on-graphing-paper into this book. A steady feeling grew and intensified in me while reading Addicts & Basements. That feeling, rare as it is, was the feeling in which Vaughn has no contemporaries—comparisons be damned. This is the type of book you have to fall into, face-first, find a comfy place to fold your brain into, then make that space your own thing, just like the taut magic Vaughan conjures and puts to the page.
Troy James Weaver lives in Kansas with his wife and their dog. He’s the author of two books, Witchita Stories (Future Tense Books) and Visions (Broken River Books).