The Contortionist’s Handbook: Ten Years Later

20131202-005151.jpgSo much time has passed. I was climbing over stacks of magazines and flyers, books and brochures, with six books of my own tucked under my arms. I’d just finished listening to the author read from his debut novel, a book that had been published two years prior, but was seeing some action from another recommending it on his own book tour. It’s a well documented exchange of love between writers, so I won’t bore you. Ask around, my finding Craig Clevenger and his work is not a lonely tale. My story, or at least, my learning of Clevenger is quite similar to many, having a lot to do with a book tour promoting Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk. So, let’s skip ahead a bit.

My feet are hanging out the driver’s window of a medical transport van in the parking lot of a Burger King in Pennsville, New Jersey. The van is baking in the late September sun and I’m supposed to be an hour away in forty five minutes. Naturally, I decide that reading the final chapter was far more important. So, I did that, and then I stared blankly while I blew through two counties, trying to process a book I’d read in less than ten hours.

At the time, I was running and writing for a blog/magazine thing that did reviews and editorials and whatever else we could think of to entertain ourselves and share with the world. Someone even pooped on a movie. I knew I had to write about The Contortionist’s Handbook and not just because it would be new content.

You see, my newfound interest in the written word was already starting to wane. Although I liked the minimalist noir style, there was an undeniable formula that was starting to disinterest me. I gave this book a shot anyway and it saved me. The Handbook tossed the verse-chorus-verse of what I was reading and fleshed out the minimalism a bit. The focus was still the story, sure, but there was a human element here that was missing elsewhere. Rather than just being characters in a story on a page, John Dolan Vincent, Jr and those around him lived.

When I got home, what came out was less a proper review and more of a passionate and hyperbolic ranting. It was chock full of profanity and juvenile similes involving bodily functions; basically my tried and true schtick that I still use to this day. I then went on to track the author down and follow him mercilessly. I did creepy. Every time he’s come to the East side of the country, I’ve been there. I’ve read and reviewed his sophomore effort. We have been published inside the covers of two short story collections.

Somewhere along the way I’d lost my signed copy and bought more, only to have that first book returned to me the other day. It was, for sure, that long lost love come home. Reading the inscription, I immediately went back to that night, scrambling over all kinds of literature inside the long since closed Soft Skull bookstore.

“It’s not polite to stare. Never not, Craig Clevenger.”

And then I was turning pages, reliving the hospitalization and story of a man with eleven fingers and a penchant for forgery. A few short hours later and the book was closed again, and there I was still fixated on that random spot between me and eternity. Ten long years later, The Contortionist’s Handbook was still amazing, maybe even more so. As time has gone by I’ve learned of Clevenger’s meticulous attention to detail and the words he chose to use or, more and to the point, not use for his desired effects. It’s still that book that makes me want to keep going, to make books a priority above all else, even my job. I hope to make him proud with a book of my own, to make him stare off into the distance, to create something he’d still love ten years later.

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