Nothing Looks Familiar by Shawn Syms (Arsenal Pulp Press 2015) $15.95; 184 pp.
… And they lived happily ever after. Even today, years after you’ve outgrown fairy tales, those words make you smile. Oh, how you love a happy ending, even though (and maybe because) life doesn’t always work out that way. As a matter of fact, in the short story collection Nothing Looks Familiar, sad endings don’t always happen, either.
A job in a slaughterhouse, for instance, is just a job, and while Wanda would rather work somewhere else, there’s no real reason to move on. Instead, in “On the Line,” she takes lovers from everywhere but the kill floor. Nobody knows she does it, until she sleeps with the wrong man — a man whose wife is Wanda’s co-worker.
Because he had few friends (“He’d never been good at keeping” them), Adam was surprised that Shaggy wanted to hang out. They never did much, just a little mayhem now and then, but in “Four Pills,” the tables are about to turn.
Gimli, Manitoba, is a tiny town perched on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. Sammy, who’s 8 years old, and Cindy, who’s just a baby, might have loved it there someday, but their mother had to get them away from there. The fumes from the drugs she made were no good for the kids; neither were the people she worked with or the tiny house where they mixed. In “Family Circus,” the kids’ mother starts making plans for escape.
People didn’t have to like Brenda Foxworthy: she liked herself enough. As one of the popular girls, she got away with everything, including meanness to Dean and his friends, Preet and Rickie. Did Brenda hate their sexuality or their nerdiness? It didn’t matter because, in “Get Brenda Foxworthy,” the three had plenty of other reasons for revenge.
When Sean and Kate inherited a house from Kate’s dad, they also inherited an eccentric tenant that they rarely saw. In “Man, Woman, and Child,” Les Montague was a harmless old guy … wasn’t he?
Unsettling. That’s a good word to use when describing the 11 stories inside Nothing Looks Familiar. Reading this book, in fact, is a little like watching an accident that you’re powerless to stop and can’t un-see. For sure, what you’ll read here will make you squirm. But that’s not a bad thing. I found myself addicted to the stories Syms tells, even though they left me dangling, wondering what happened next. Another oddity: the characters in these stories aren’t particularly likeable, which leads to a certain amount of Schadenfreude.
These are stories that will tap you on the shoulder, days after you’ve finished the book. They’ll keep you awake, pondering. If you’re not careful, Nothing Looks Familiar could haunt you ever after.
— Terri Schlichenmeyer
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 25, 2015.