J.D. Graves reviews Greasepaint & .45’s, Edited by Ryan Sales, Published by Down & Out Books 2019, 244 pages.
Since ECR’s releasing a clown covered bit of pulp for our fifth issue, we felt it was only right that we explore D&OB’s own clourophobia inducing anthology. Featuring the work of David James Keaton, Jeffery Hess, Lono Waiwaiole, Jen Conley, James R. Tuck, Chuck Regan, Liam Sweeney, Richard Thomas, J.L. Abramo, Grant Jerkins, Marietta Miles, Ed Kurtz, R. Daniel Lester*, Warren Moore, Patricia Abbott, and the inestimable Scotch Rutherford*. Now kiddies, follow the bouncing ball and sing along with this bizarre and wildly satisfying collection of pure mayhem.
I wasn’t sure of what to expect. Clowns & crime? I was hesitant, since I find painted clowns disturbing. Regular clowns like your boss, and the local weathermen, I’m perfectly okay with–to an extent. Maybe it’s all the bad press surrounding creepers like Gacy, Pennywise, or that legitimate weekend ruiner Capturing the Friedman’s, Whenever I’m faced with some schmo covered in paint and cavorting like the town drunk on payday, my chest tightens and I get queasy. Maybe it’s the fact that the eyes behind the mask belong to a human being. But not a regular human being, a human being who is also a clown. And there’s something strangely upsetting about that. I know I’m not alone. So all you Bozos can take your floppy shoes and big red noses and turn them into smiles and sunshine.
About twenty years ago, I knew a clown. We’ll call him Chris, because I don’t remember his real name. The second choice was Chad, but you’re either first or worst. Chris and I had government 101 together. The professor required everyone to write and perform a five minute speech over a topic that meant something to them personally. On Chris’s day he waddled in wearing a bright red billowy jump suit, lined with yellow frills. On his face he’d painted a white circle. It started just below his bottom lip to just above his eyebrows, making his already round face small and tight. He’d painted red dots for cheeks, and the tip of his nose, blue. On top of his bald head sat a tiny straw boater’s hat. An oversized paper Daisy drooped from his lapel.
In other words, he was terrifying.
This was the same guy who chewed the class clock, arguing minutia about the Bill of Rights and shared stories about beating breathalyzers at police road traps. He walked in defiantly proud to clown around for his classmates. The crowd gasped anxiously. Us, all of us, staring slack jawed at the display did something to Chris’s confidence. Children at least smile or laugh. But a roomful of peers had turned more hostile than the reading of your sugar daddy’s will. The shake in his voice and the tremble in his hands could not be hidden. He seemed suddenly embarrassed to be making balloon animals and struggled to explain how this hobby wasn’t strange at all. He was normal. Also, he confessed that an Uncle had originally turned him onto the gig. Which opens a veritable pandora’s box of demented possibilities which were probably as wholesome as Michael Landon. But red flags went up when he kept repeating how he wanted to bring joy and happiness to the world.
At that moment, I genuinely felt for Chris…if this was his act he was hands down the worst clown ever. I don’t remember him being there the next week when I spoke about stem cell research, human cloning, and this ridiculous cult who used their clone conventions as an excuse to fornicate like barn mammals in groups. Unlike Chris’s speech mine was a real laugh riot. With that limited personal experience with clowns, I picked up a copy of this book and thought, if I hated it–only the scant few of my Goodreads buddies would even know I tried it and failed. If you’re reading this now, assume something else.
Of all of life’s pleasures, being surprised is one to be cherished. I think approaching this material not knowing what to make of it, may be the best avenue to drive your clown car down, it keeps the surprises coming. And yeah, those surprises maybe doused in confetti, and honk when you squeeze them, but Greasepaint & .45’s is a fresh, funny, poignant and sometimes heart breaking collection of surreal tales of crime. And like all noir stories, it’s gritty in all the right places. But for those of you who are still hesitant to give it try because of the subject matter, my hot take follows below.
If you haven’t already, purchase your copy here.
RUBBING PETER TO PAY PAUL
“Do you think you’ll enjoy hell?“ It’s the middle of the night and a couple of kooky guys are in a cemetery making headstone rubbings. There’s some economic nonsense about selling framed rubs for $5k if the stone belongs to a dead celebrity. We don’t find out till later the exact owner of the stone in question. Clown hatred is explored as the men labor and then we get to meet Paul and his best friend, the stroke causing brain bubbles that sends this freak show into action. This story is really just an exploration of a very strange symbiotic relationship. The narrator helps Paul relearn to communicate using only his middle finger following the stroke while trying to convince the poor guy to break up with his devoted girlfriend. Jealousy bubbles up through the multiple layers of this story and things get hairier from there. And to say more would spoil this story’s truly twisted second half. A fantastic opening to this antho.
I’m reminded of the old saying, “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.” An overworked and exhausted children’s party clown deals with economic hardships the only way she knows how. And while Sunshine the Clown busy herself with the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism to pay off some debts, she goes and gets herself kidnapped by a fellow who just wants a private show for a very special person. What follows is one of the funniest femme fatale seductions in recent memory. Choices are made that can’t be unchosen. The tale told does a fine job of keeping both of its oversized shoes firmly in reality while providing an escape.
“I bet everyone here today but you knows cows say moo!” That lines a mouthful if you try to say it outloud, but it gives you the flavor of the people populating this world. Clowning rodeos is good work if you can find it. When one such Bandy finds his pride besmirched, he resolves to exact some much-deserved revenge against a couple of folks in this Thompsonian look at the downs and outs of bulldoggers. The dialogue is crisp and realistic. The scenes are briskly paced as the plan unfolds and finds the clowns up against a bull known only as the Terminator. In pure noir style, the ending lands like a horn to the groin.
During a wintery New England evening, a chance encounter at a thirty-something shindig conjures up past events that Matt would rather not remember. The story, while being the most literary of this clown car collection, simmers with tension and brooding atmosphere. Post-traumatic stress, just like clowns, comes in a vast amount of varieties. The real clowns presented here reminded me of all those banal folks with normal haircuts, sporting bedroom teeth, who can only see the world from the two windows on their smiling faces. In the end, the reader is treated with the devastating costs of truly serving someone a cold dish of revenge. A definite highlight.
THE HAPPIEST MEAL
James R. Tuck
“People look up as I slap slap through but I ignore them motherfuckers. I’m here for Charlie.” Nothing quite like sweaty imagery to help cool you off in the dirty South. This story as a whole is definitely the most textured with lines like, “My jumpsuit is swampy in the crotch.” Anyways, the main clown at the center of this comedy of errors, is a deadbeat dad just trying to see his kid on his birthday. So, he comes dressed as a clown. Unfortunately, it’s Pogo the Clown. If you don’t know, google it. Anyways, that’s the wind-up, and the pitch that follows gets crushed outta the park so hard that the crowd goes wilder than it probably should have at an indoor playground. Definitely one of my favorites.
“The carnival was an active ritual space, and every ritual needs some kind of sacrifice.” Who doesn’t get just a tad giddy when they see a county fair set up? What if it’s been abandoned for years? A photographer obsessed with carnivals travels the country snapping away. This one feels a lot like Chris Marker’s short film La Jetee since it deals with memory and the importance of singular moments and how they affect the future. This piece is quite literary in its structure, ebbing and flowing between the past and present. All leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy, and who doesn’t enjoy those.
SELTZER AND BLOW
“The only thing we know about future developments is that they will develop.” It’s hard to make a living, so when a strange party invite arrives, a crew of veterans leap to action doing what they do best. The only problem is these clowns won’t be the only entertainment. What follows is a bonkers funeral party that features booze, cocaine, pirates, clowns, cowboys, and hookers. They are instructed, “…your whole job; make shit even weirder than it already is.” And as if on cue, all hell breaks loose. Before you put this book on the shelf to look good and collect dust, make sure you read this story. Another personal favorite. I read it twice. And I’d read again it.
“They all blur together these days—the smell of manure and buttered popcorn, urine and cotton candy, hay and innocence.” The eighth story is a flash piece that is only twenty-nine sentences long. It serves as an interlude like a pallet cleanser of metal shavings and burnt hair. What it lacks in length it more than makes up for in imagery and atmosphere. Outside Chicago, Bob is going through some things, and Bob is hungry.
“Get out,” the man said, “and if you tell anyone what you saw I will kill your whole family.” Clowns can be many things and Home-wrecker, apparently is one of them. This detective yarn follows the hunt for what happened to Tommy’s mother after she disappeared a couple of weeks after his birthday party. Clues lead us to the unmasking of a dangerous sociopath and a tragic discovery. A pretty well written story that pulls on all the genre’s levers. An anthology highlight.
CLOWNS IN MY COFFEE
“…where’s the baby?” Maybe it’s the hour of the day but this anthology is beginning to throw long shadows across the page. The clown make-up’s been fun, but the red pigment’s turning to maroon and all the blues are dimmed down to black. The squirting flower is full of poison and Mr. Jerkins little slash of nastiness is actually quite potent. It’s recommended for adventures only. So, you know, everyone.
“The son of an acrobat and a sledge driver. Jazz could have been the strong man, but he chose to run with the funnies.” When a substitute bearded lady gets accosted by a drunk patron. The rest of the freak show gets medieval on his ass. A story as dark as the bubbling tar of the climax. A pretty stout little bit of retribution that culminates in a down and dirty, yet visceral conclusion. Well done, keeps you guessing till the end. And by then, it’s too late.
FUN TIME WITH BLATZO
“Harold Bachterberg wasn’t the kind of man who had friends.” When local celebrity Blatzo grows tired of the grind, he agrees to a fairly unorthodox corruption. But when you’re face is somewhat familiar, it’s hard to hide in a crowd of locals. Blatzo goes from almost famous to infamous in front of God and everyone. As if Krusty the Clown really robbed the Kwik-E-Mart. This is a good one with believable characters in over the top situations. With a satisfying end.
R. Daniel Lester
“I’m surprised the old geezer can get the rocket upright anymore let alone launch any astronauts into space.” R. Daniel Lester is back with another bit of his particular brand of clowning around. The sparse dialogue snaps and pops. The bones of the plot keep the characters in business and their dimpled skin from sagging. Read it. Left to right, top to bottom. Beginning to End. Another solid outing from a writer I thoroughly enjoy. And so can you!
“You try to make them as happy as you can.” This one will break your heart. A children’s hospital clown works a room of sick kids. And to say more will say too much. This piece wouldn’t be out of place looking down on us slobs from more highbrow literary towers. Huge thanks to the editor, Sayles for including it here. If I could award it more recognition I certainly would. Another highlight of the anthology.
“Fool Hardy didn’t say a word until the door was closed. When he was satisfied we were alone, he flopped into my favorite chair and began to talk. Like most of the clowns I’d known, his feet moved perpetually as if the big shoes were still on them and his gestures and facial expressions were demonstrative.” This short deals with the painted eggs in the Clown’s Corridor. A museum like business that charges $15 a soul to gawk at rounded images of famous clowns. The artist, whose labor greases the wheels, is getting ripped off by the proprietor and this leads to a very strange but economically advantageous situation. Very well written slice of life with a twist. A definite highlight.
WTF. Seriously, WTF. Someone smarter than me once said a writer should begin their story with characters at a low point socially, emotionally, and personally. That way they have nowhere to go but up towards the climax. Mr. Rutherford follows the first part exceptionally, but instead of doing the next part decides to drive the plot deeper into darkness–like Mariana Trench dark–where it’s just you and that soft glowing floating thingy that you want to touch. But as soon as you do fondle that squishy lure–out comes the nest of teeth. And thrill seekers those teeth are hungry. You know what I’m talking about, hot nightmare fuel–but this time there’s clowns–dirty clowns doing dirty deeds, dirt cheap somewhere in Nevada. Like most of Scotch’s other work, he steps on the accelerator from the opening sentence and dares the reader to pull the parking brake. If you can resist that particular urge for the entire ride, I promise you’ll be rewarded by having finished one of the best anthology closers I’ve read in a hot minute. Like really, there’s no way to follow it.
Close the book. You’ve survived this particular three-ringed exhibition. Go about your day as you would normally–but if you find yourself lingering…slack-jawed at zoo animals, or gun shops, or cotton candy stands, archdioceses, strip-clubs, Wal-Mart greeters, etc…do avoid the temptation to apply pancake factor number 5 and unleash your own version of this mayhem. The rest of the kids in class may not appreciate you clowning around.
Remember the book is always better. And this book is worth the price of admission.
If a guest sees this thing guffawing back at them on your coffee table, it’s a short cut to conversation. Buy your copy here. As of the writing of this review, Greasepaint & .45’s is on sale for a limited time. Do yourself a favor and pull the trigger.
*denotes an author who has appeared in the pages of EconoClash Review: Quality Cheap Thrills.