“Stories About My Punk Rock Buick: Tyler Barton’s The Quiet Part Loud”
Reviewed by Sean Alan Cleary
Tyler Barton’s The Quiet Part Loud is flash fiction at its best, at its quickest, and at its most confounding, inhabiting a familiar world going nowhere fast.
Like the titular “teens” in the story “Late-Teens on Trash Night”, Tyler Barton’s The Quiet Part Loud is full of the “urgent boredoms,” of an America full of chain stores, old Buicks with one good speaker, and narrators who think in quick-witted darlings of sentences. The world is York County Pennsylvania, or it’s Northern Kentucky, or a weekend off the highway in Jersey, and it’s a world that Barton inhabits expertly, if only in brief in this collection of eleven stories, not one of which spans more than ten pages. Yes, they are flash fiction, but often sit bigger than that.
The effect of this is a type of violent inertia in the stories that is as hard to ignore as the book is to put down — after finishing it in a sitting, I wondered, a bit bleary-eyed, where the rest of it could be, and how I could get my hands on more (we’re in luck that he has, it seems, five more stories forthcoming from various magazines (TSBarton.com/Publications). In a way, the book feels like the crescendo of an inward-gazing adolescence: teenagers and small-town life drawn toward an indeterminate violence (be it drugs, apathy, or the violence of an uncaring world), but unsure where it will lead them. And that’s how many of the stories end, with a non-revelation, with a jolt.
As the narrator in “Mannequins” puts it, “in eight months we graduate and some of us are jailed and some of us die quickly in another country and some of us take longer” (50). And in that story, we never get to graduation, instead ending with a purposeful miscommunication: the teens have run a hapless man on a bike off the road by tossing a mannequin arm at him (of course!). And he comes back slamming the arm on their windshield and yelling, while the teens are frozen there, something holding them back from driving off. He’s yelling and slamming the arm, and Barton ends us with “And still we pretend we don’t know what he’s telling us” (53). The ambiguity of the “still” at the end here might be the farthest into the future we get to see in this collection, which might be as much about people with no futures as it is about punk-rock blasted into box store parking lots.
And for those of us who came to punk too late to be cool for listening to it, or who’ve lived with war as the constant backdrop of their teenage lives, and who still can’t see a future out of it, The Quiet Part Loud amplifies the urgency underneath the endless middle-white-American malaise of the last twenty years, a cultural aftershock of what Francis Fukayama dubbed the “End of History.” Barton transforms this latent energy into a series of stories that, while they don’t shout, do buttonhole you and speak menacingly into your ear in declarative, sinister sentences about the shit they’ve done.
The danger in the book is most felt in “K,” where we also best glimpse a narrator, seemingly a B-Boy all grown up and comfortable, who in the future lives a life with a wife who “owns every season of So You Think You Can Dance on DVD.” But he’s still writing letters to his friend left behind and in jail. It’s a story of compelling “ifs” centered around this pivotal moment. And the pivot to conjecture that occurs in “K,” is used often in The Quiet Part Loud.
Many times, in Barton’s stories we’re left wondering where the pivot goes to and how the beautiful scarcity in the language plays a part in the narrative: when the narrator of “Winter Break” thinks of his mother’s smoking as “cotton-candy drags from a vape-pen” or that she “feeds my hangover hashbrowns spilled from a bag” we have to assume he must be on winter break from a graduate writing program, as the stylized staccato prescience of his observations seem able to descend from no other heights. But in the end of the story, the narrator seems to want us to also return to the cycle of the violence he visits on “some sophomore” back at college after break. It’s a cycle that comes from his mother’s ex and ultimately the shittiness our narrator visits each trip home, a world he can’t shed. He wants to be both those things, both going nowhere and going somewhere, at once.
In the end, the book feels like it wants to be told on the way out of town (it’s done with this shithole!), but many of its characters can’t see a way out, or get waylaid off the Jersey Turnpike not quite making it. Where they’re going, they don’t know, and at times the reader can’t even imagine. This is a good thing, as it feels real, and feels right for the world it describes. It’s the type of well-written, clear-eye collection of stories that seem connected enough in tone and theme to make readers want a novel out of Barton, but what that novel will look like, I haven’t a clue.
Publisher: Split Lip Press
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