“It doesn’t seem like it right now, but I am trying my fucking hardest to get my shit together.” It’s impossible to know who is saying this in the story “Pyramid Blues,” Nathaniel Kennon Perkins’s or the narrator. But after reading the 22 stories in this debut collection, separating the fictional from lived experience is a fruitless exercise, and one Perkins would probably call a waste of time if you asked him. Blurring the line between the two seems to be the point. To that end, The Way Cities Feel to us Now, and other stories is a creative retelling of lived experience from the crusty margins, cut from the cloth of dirty realism where Denis Johnson is classic literature, Scott McClanahan is modern Canon, and Breece Pancake is a mandatory rite of passage.
“I really am sorry. Sorry that these things I say I’ve worked through and forgotten keep coming back up over and over again.”
These are stories of the directionless and depraved: people living on the fringes in the American West, people just trying to get by. Writing about crust punks and addicts isn’t new by any stretch, but these stories feel honest and forthright and that feels good enough. If you couldn’t tell where Perkin’s ambitions lie with The Way Cities Feel to us Now, just know that he shares the same publisher as Bud Smith.
Most stories weigh in under 2,000 words, conventional flash fiction, perfectly honed for reading aloud in coffee shops, bookstores, and beneath the occasional crust punk over pass. Two pieces play out this idea, literally. In the self-referential “Work of Serious Literary Merit,” the narrator reads a story at a house show in Oakland while watching the girl he hopes to impress abruptly leave in the middle of the reading. The story that follows, “Ms. Pac Man,” is the piece he reads to the crowd, which is more a series of questions: is she a mammal? Is she a reptile? How does she have sex? Maybe you would also leave in the middle of this. If so, this book is not for you. Perkins likes to have fun, and much of this collection operates with a sort of grungy, dark humor.
Characters desperately want to get laid but can’t stay sober enough to take off their clothes. People pluck cigarette buts off the side walk and smoke them. At the beginning of one story, the narrator announces matter-of-factly: “I wanted to get hit by a car.” It’s a tight line to walk, between fucking up and hilarious, and Perkins mostly pulls it off.
A standout for me is “The Last Time I Almost Had a Threesome,” which begins with the narrator lying in a hospital bed after having had his foot amputated. He doesn’t initially tell us what happened, that’s not the story. The story is about how he was trying to impress two crust punk girls enough to have a threesome. And this flashback is so engaging—the constant evasion of dirty hotel sex—that we forget he was ever in a hospital to begin with, much less with an amputated leg. It’s a remarkable simplistic mode of storytelling but pulled off with excellent pacing and rhythm.
His stories works best when the narrator talks directly to the reader, creating an everyman connection, a bond that means “we’re in this shit together.” When he invites two crust punk girls to his hotel room in “The Last Time I Almost Had a Threesome,” he admits “Listen, though, I don’t usually stay in hotel rooms. I mean, look at me.” There’s the aptly titled “I’m Sorry Your Boyfriend is in the Mental Hospital Again,” a sort of confessional prose poem written to the reader about a psychological unravelling from too many drugs where the narrator addresses the reader as “you” throughout. Same with “Put Me on a Dog Leash and Make Me Eat Taco Bell off the Floor.”
Where other writers might make a big show of pulling back the curtain, Perkins tore his down a long time ago and has been using it as a makeshift sleeping bag. His writing necessitates a dirty, uncomfortable intimacy, revealing the ugly contours of fringe life in the West, where cigarettes and Tequila can be a warm meal and a story only ever ends when Perkins gets tired of telling it.
Kevin Sterne is the author of From Your Jerry (No Rest Press) and I’ve Done Worse (Long Day Press). He’s also the editor in chief of Funny Looking Dog Quarterly. His fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Maudlin House, Literary Orphans, and others. Kevin loves running and trees.