Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Book Review: Strange Fle$h by Joe West

Strange Fle$h By Joe West
Anxiety Press (2023)

This book comes at you like a semitruck going the wrong way on the freeway.  And Joe West is not about to hit the brakes.  In some ways reminiscent of Bukowski, and in other ways reminiscent of Whitman, this story is shocking and repulsive on the one hand and tender and touching on the other.  Gritty and crass versus uplifting and sensitive.  The protagonist Frederick Bickel is a master of caustic observations and a fountain of unexpected yet hilarious descriptions.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel this entertaining or this good.  A slice of life account of blue-collar working class-struggle that questions why anyone suffers through it when the payoff at the end is always the same.  An exhilarating romp  through the American low life as it truly is.

By the author’s own admission, and the protagonist’s constant personal beratements we all learn early on that Freddie is not a nice person, is a class A fuck up, and doesn’t much give two shits about anything except for getting high, drunk, and laid; frequently all at the same time.  Freddie, who has just turned 50, is limping through life, and has come to expect very little good to come from it.  He frequently intimates that he doesn’t care whether or not he lives or dies, spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating suicide, and does as little as possible to change his station in life.  He works as a security guard at a high-rise office building in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri and has little to look forward to except for ogling twenty-something Sunday, a curvy stacked bombshell who works as the receptionist on the rarified ninth floor, and engaging in conversation with Thom, a homeless ex-radio deejay who inhabits a dumpster outside the building.  Sunday initially won’t give him the time of day, while Thom has all the time in the world that causes Freddie to find him endearing:

He smells like wine and cigarettes, firewood smoke, McDonald’s cheeseburgers with extra pickles, and chocolate pudding cups.  Thom is what I imagine Christ was like.  Just a good guy you could have a beer with, who made you feel better without making you feel like shit for it.  I cannot help but root for him.  We are both born losers, just with different jobs (p. 12).

While Sunday rubs shoulders with the corporate muckety-mucks Freddie knows that she may be in their world but she is not of their world.  He and Sunday have a lot more in common than she realizes.

There is a thin line between Sunday up here and me downstairs,  We are both merely needed, not necessary.  Someday we’ll both be replaced by the next generation of pretty idiots.  A workforce of ambitionless, brainless, borderline alcoholics yearning to have their lives predetermined for them by an all-knowing, all-powerful God called America.  Until then, we are just hoping for the best and preparing for the worst (p.23).

A third of the way through the narrative Freddie espouses his true feelings towards what it’s like to be a cog in the machine that is corporate America:

The corporate robots file into the lobby as they have programmed themselves to do since getting hired.  Everyone looks disappointed to be here yet again.  The saddest people that I have ever seen leave this building are the retirees on their last day.  Two-thirds of their lives comes to rest in a Banker’s Box accompanied by a sheet cake and a signed card.  There is no joy, no anticipation in their eyes for a hard-won freedom as they shuffle towards the front doors knowing they are never coming back inside (p. 73).

Freddie meets Sunday’s mom Jerusalem when he helps her take some boxes out to their waiting vehicle and mom immediately invites him to dinner.  Here the heartbeat of the story begins to thump as mom becomes revealed as a partier who revels in Freddie’s after dinner pot stash and shortly thereafter gets Freddie into bed.  It wasn’t very difficult on either count as Freddie is adept at scoring all manner of drugs and is blessed with being a sexual athlete capable of instantly achieving erections and occasionally experiencing multiple orgasms.  Sunday has a seven-year-old son Octavius who Freddie takes a shine to.  Soon Freddie is a fixture in their household, and the drinking and drugging is such that Sunday unwittingly climbs into bed with him and he unwittingly penetrates her while she’s half asleep thinking that she is Jerusalem.  He realizes his mistake, as does an annoyed Sunday, but both remain quiet about it, and Jerusalem remains clueless until Sunday turns up pregnant. 

Freddie is filled with remorse when Thom unexpectedly dies.  He pays for a meager pauper’s funeral and as it comes to a close, he questions his own existence through the lens of Thom’s life:

…He was looking for something that he couldn’t describe to anyone, but I figured it was what most men are looking for: the meaning, the reason for it all.  Why are we even willing to try and shovel the shit life gives us all in the first place?  Who the fuck knows is all I ever got by going down the rabbit hole, be it sober or tripping on psilocybin tea,

To discover life is meaningless is to declare insanity.  To admit this cosmic chess board we all move upon is nothing but a figment of our collective imaginations, that there are no rules, no God or grandparents waiting patiently for us when we die, is when the thin line between civilization and chaos disappears (p. 114-115).

A recently divorced and completely disgruntled mass shooter gets past Freddie one day, makes it up to the fourth floor, opens fire, and kills his ex-wife.  Freddie summons the courage to run towards the danger, sees the man kneeling over his victim, sneaks up on him, and severely strikes the man over the head with a fire extinguisher.  Touted as a hero, he is given a $15,000 reward, and life is good.  Easy living is not the forte off Freddie Bickle and he finds a way to screw it all up when he takes the two women to Las Vegas to get married as a threesome.  Now the hero is reviled on social media and shortly thereafter fired by the self-righteous office manager. Lost and rudderless he finds another job but hates every second of it.

Redemption of sorts occurs when Freddie wins a wrongful firing lawsuit and  gets hired back and elevated from security guard to receptionist.  Sunday decides that she doesn’t want to raise the baby and that she wants out of the threesome relationship altogether.  Now richer by $25,000.00, Jerusalem and Freddie decide to give it a go at raising the baby when it arrives and supporting Octavius in any way they can which they know is going to be difficult when it’s discovered that he is autistic.

The kid, though, is doing real good.  I got him into a private school for special needs children.  His teachers have found a shitload of problems: dyslexia, Autism, Add, and fucking depression.  How in the fuck can a little kid have depression?  But it’s all good.  These people take care of kids like him every day, they even got degrees in college just so they could.  Life never ceases to amaze me (p. 223).

From degenerate semi-drug addict and functional acholic to quasi-responsible step-grandaddy Freddie Bickle’s hero’s journey was rife with mistakes, fuckups, and misguided attempts at trying to help people so dysfunctional that they wouldn’t even help themselves.  He went from not caring if he died to having a reason to live.  At it’s core, this is a book about redemption, and it’s a fool’s errand trying to predict who is and who is not redeemable.  Someone has to be open to the idea of it, and when they are, fate never ceases to amaze any of us.

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Reviewed by John Krieg
John Krieg has written many books. His recent book of five short novellas is entitled Zingers.




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