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Sunday Book Review: Your Body is Changing by Jack Pendarvis

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Jack Pendarvis, author of the just-released collection of short stories, Your Body is Changing is a funny guy. He was just in town on Friday for a reading at Skylight Books and posted about it on his blog yesterday under the heading, “An Open Letter to the People of California.” What did his post say? “You are nice!” Yup. That's it. So short prose really is his specialty...

While Pendarvis, who resides in Atlanta, is a Southern writer to the core, don’t expect him to follow exactly in the dramatic literary tradition of a William Faulkner or a Tennessee Williams. Your Body is Changing is filled with humorous and oddball characters that’ll make you laugh one minute and wince in revulsion the next. It's pop culture to the core, and that's what makes it so good.

The collection’s eight stories begins with “Lumber Land” – about a 50-year-old newspaper reporter Dudley Durden -- who doesn’t write (he’s inexplicably on the company’s payroll for life) and spends his time either contemplating his would-have-been greatness and various ailments or hanging out in his stinky, filth-infested home. (If this passage doesn’t paint a pretty picture for you, I don’t know what will):

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While Three was in the bathroom, Dud rummaged around for his car keys and thought about all the things Three was sure to notice, like the squeezed-out toothpaste tube so old that the petrified gunk leaking out of the cracks was gray, and the permanent stains in the toilet, and the hissing roaches that lived behind the mirror, and the black stuff growing along the rum of the air vent, and the basket of rotting pecans in the bathtub.
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That last phrase – a basket of pecans in a bathtub – illustrates the beauty of Pendarvis’s work: Something’s just a little off with his characters. They’re not quiet right in the head – and that’s just fine because it makes me feel normal. Other stories “Tollbooth Confidential” – about a slacker who’s asked to deliver a brick of hash – and “Courageous Blast: The Legacy of America’s Most Radical Gum” – about the development of a gum that gives customers the runs – are just as entertaining.

But other stories in the collection are a little more uneven and meander a little too far from the course Pendarvis first set. He begins “Outsiders” by telling readers of an elderly humor columnist’s expected meeting with his estranged daughter, but then shifts gears abruptly so the story focuses on the foursome’s conversation at the next table. And the “The Train Going Back” just feels out of place with the rest of the collection.

The collection’s title story, however, is good enough to forgive Pendarvis those minor missteps. Readers meet awkward Alabama teenager Henry Gill, 14, as he’s attacked by an owl in his home. The owl causes him to trip and split his tongue in two (yes, kind of like a snake). But that’s not all poor Henry has to deal with. If puberty and pimples weren’t enough, he has a lump of excess estrogen in his left breast that begins lactating later in the story.

He’s also a devout Christian who loves Jesus, but the boy is tortured by those sinful feelings cropping up below his beltline. We follow Henry’s spiritual road trip to defend his beliefs in a world full of heathens and sinners. My only criticism of this story is that I wished it were longer – Henry Gill would have made a great lead character in a full-length novel.

So while Jack Pendarvis’s stories are definitely not for everyone, we’re sure those readers who stick through the entire collection will definitely be left wanting more.

Your Body is Changing is Jack Pendarvis’s second collection of short stories. The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure was released in 2005 and his first novel AWESOME will be published in 2008.