Ina-Baby: a love story in reverse by Benjamin Drevlow
Cowboy Jamboree Press, October 2019
267 pages / Amazon
The concept of a contemporary book of fiction chronicling a marriage may seem quaint and at risk of running saccharine. Any reader concerned about Benjamin Drevlow making their blood sugar run high need not stress—on the contrary, Ina-Baby pulls no punches in tracing the ugly exchanges, awkward fallings out, and borderline abuses of a dysfunctional relationship. Told in reverse, the book weaves its way from stories of the narrator’s ill-fated drunken confrontation with “the other man,” to the relationship’s unlikely beginnings, all the way back to the narrator’s love interest grappling with her parents’ dissolving marriage as a child.
While Ina-Baby is ostensibly a collection of linked stories, shared from end to beginning, the greatest strength of the book may be in its all-encompassing coherence of tone, style, form, and function. The title itself begs questions about its meaning, including if it might reference that there’s something to be found in a baby. That the cover image renders two skulls in something like wedding garb might portend something ominous about that child’s fate. The book’s title is more of an inside joke, however, or at least an insider reference, in instead referencing the narrator’s pet name for his wife, Christina. So it is that, from the beginning, the book suggests how it will unfurl: engendering a greater understanding of its core relationship in post-mortem style, provoking the greatest sympathies from the reader after we’ve already seen the narrator and Christina at their worst, and also may have also already forgiven them.
Drevlow embraces earnest obscenity, making it a signature element of his narrator’s voice. In “End Notes,” after the narrator’s failed attack on Gary—the younger man his wife seemingly left him for—he renders with grimace-worthy nuance that, “Gary’s a surprisingly good hugger for a lankyassed peckerwood motherfucker with a topknot.” Only a short while later, in a moment of utterly bereft stank and sorrow, when the narrator has not only seen his marriage kick the bucket, but his old dog, too, he explains, “It’s a messed-up thing, waking up to the body of your dead dog simultaneously warm and sweaty and cold and stiff.” These moments, in addition to the extended meditation on rape and suicide jokes and if they ever are or ever could be funny from “How We Touched Each Other When We Touched Each Other” place the reader in the most uncomfortable of spots, not so much inviting us as grabbing our hands and dragging us down into the tension and dismay of the narrator’s life, only to be outdone by the cacophonous squalor of his mind.
There’s a meta-quality to the collection, as both the book’s protagonist and Drevlow himself, via his acknowledgments, purport to be autobiographical fiction writers, thus consistently raising questions of the line between fact and fiction. The consistent labeling of his memoir as “mem-wahs” underscores the potential for melodrama—of a narrative voice all too conscious that it may come across as whiny for its melancholy. That’s not to suggest that the prose is without energy, however, as not only coarse language and frank descriptions invigorate the writing, but also choices like the repeated stylized mentions of SURGE! soda that never fail to insert a moment of caps lock intensity to mirror the caffeine rush of the narrator’s preferred soft drink.
Ina-Baby on the whole might be considered an experiment in structure and chronology, but within it Drevlow engages with other oddities and departures from traditional storytelling, including the ambitious piece, “How She Got To Loving Me” that literally puts the default narrator in conversation with Christina—the narrator quick to subjugate himself in brackets and an italicized font in contrast to his partner’s regular print. In this piece, we get a more direct sense of the two-way street of hard feelings and sarcasm, including the opening litany of reasons for their pairing—an implied answer to the question of the story’s title: “Pity mostly, a healthy dose of guilt. A lot of whiskey. Self-loathing.”
Life isn’t pretty, and the day-to-day realities of a long-term relationship may be the least gossamer elements of it. In Ina-Baby, Drevlow invites us to linger in the company of busted friendships, dogs who won’t abide commands, houses burned down, nice steak dinners followed by flatulence, and marriage proposals met with punches to the head. The collection is sad, but scarcely apologetic, and therein lies its beauty: it’s an honest, nuanced look at the stories most of us would leave untold.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He is the author of two full-length short story collections: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books and Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle; his third collection, The Long Way Home is forthcoming in 2020 from Cowboy Jamboree Press. Chin won the 2017-2018 Jean Leiby Chapbook Award from The Florida Review and Bayou Magazine’s 2014 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.