Verdict: With HOME & CASTLE, Thomas Benz sharpens the tools of earlier literary traditions into cutting—yet humane—observations of the hazards present in our culture of comfort and convenience, with striking clarity, insight, and an intimacy bordering on clairvoyance.
HOME & CASTLE’s collected short stories offer an outside-looking-out perspective: assuming—not denying—a mistaken identity; the inexplicable happiness of being somewhere without permission; the horror of love for another mistaken as hostility; publicly fighting a fake Darth Vader and other tales following explorers of life into landscapes domestic and wild, returning with artifacts we might fear to believe, but will—as fellow travelers—wholeheartedly recognize.
In “House Crawl,” Reed Naughton’s fresh life with wife Greta and 10-year-old Charlie is cracking. Spirit Island Estates, “pleasantly separate” from stresses including Reed’s boss “hovering like a killer drone” (owing to a copywriting blunder and big accounts being plucked away by the Pacific Rim) and nearby urban chaos, boasts opulent homes, property, and even a golf course hosting the Arrowhead Grill—a name both crass and faux historical. As in real life—or IRL for the Island’s over-caffeinated—friends here are replaced roughly every seven years, many obscured behind e-mail, hyper-vigilantly curated Facebook profiles, and the security system known to most as Caller ID.
Blotching residents’ radar are menhirs—upright megaliths a la Stonehenge—under attack from drive-by shooters, graffiti artists, and cable-TV installers. Like authentic colonizers, the Island’s upscale folk give lip-service to the ancients’ artifacts. Reed is attracted to his neighbor, Mandy–the girlfriend of his best pal, Brian–a quietly mysterious blonde blogger/freelance whose articles reveal a seething intelligence. Reed admires Brian’s neither prying nor remote aura, but soon learns of an on-the-side sex life. The annual House Crawl beckons; Reed is alienated among the partiers, including wife Greta, so removes himself to an isolated (strangely glowing) patch—and encounters Mandy. Discovering festive balloons trapped between menhirs are the lights’ source, Reed and Mandy (“Which side are you on?” she asks. “The past or the future?”) seek blurry redemption via a rolling embrace and kiss—and shots sound, breaking the moment. Is it Brian, gunning for Reed? Opportunistic vandals? Benz’s masterful closing foils both pessimism and optimism, catching us in the dark with our anguished hope.
“Life Jacket,” another existential slice, follows fraught father Brett and only-child Otis to a playground, where community members’ personae of outward politeness masks genuine yearning for connection, stifled by fear of societal judgment. Brett’s desperation to squeeze in even brief time with Otis is shattered by the bland compulsion of an ice cream truck’s tune and its luckless vendor’s refusal to be bullied. Brett’s repressed rage explodes, and hands grip cell phones hoping to capture something for the media. But Otis intervenes, recalling in Brett a long-ago moment with his own father.
Rightly compared to Updike and Cheever, Benz’s prose dazzles more for its devastating accuracy than linguistic pyrotechnics.
With HOME & CASTLE, Thomas Benz sharpens the tools of earlier literary traditions into cutting—yet humane—observations of the hazards present in our culture of comfort and convenience, with striking clarity, insight, and an intimacy bordering on clairvoyance.
~William Grabowski for IndieReader