THE TITLE OF KELLEY BAKER’S NEW COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES is not a reference to Dennis Barton’s actual parentage. It’s a self-assessment of his psychological and behavioral state of being – a condition that Dennis readily accepts, for all the carnal pleasure it provides and in spite of the emotional mayhem it threatens to unleash.
The just-released Dennis Barton Is a Bastard and Other Stories is the newest collection from Baker, the Portland writer and indie filmmaker known in film circles across the nation as The Angry Filmmaker. Baker’s been known to crisscross the country in a van with a series of canine companions, logging hundreds of thousands of miles from speaking and screening engagement to speaking and screening engagement. Some of those adventures with his chocolate lab Moses found their way into his 2017 collection Road Dog, a sort of Travels With Charley for a renegade generation.
Storytelling is storytelling, and like the Portland musician and novelist Willy Vlautin, Baker shifts easily from one form to another, retaining his own style and voice. The stories in Dennis Barton Is a Bastard are close to hand – Eugene and Springfield and the hard industrial stretches of Northwest Portland out U.S. 30, on the way to Scappoose and beyond – and they go down quick and easy, but also like they’re scraping over rough sandpaper, leaving little lesions as the words flow by. Kelley writes in brisk sharp sentences that can feel like well-worn jeans fraying at the knees, just the way you like ’em.
Those jeans might just be disintegrating. There’s a good deal of humor in all of the stories, of the rueful, head-shaking, here-we-go-again variety. Baker writes of low hopes and worn-down possibilities and the urge to self-destruction, and even as we laugh we also shudder, and want to warn these people we’ve become unaccountably fond of, and yet we know they already know: They’ve messed up, or they’re about to mess up, and things are going to go wrong, and the best thing to do is just laugh, or maybe cry, as the world falls down.
The people (men, mostly) in Baker’s stories do not for the most part lead lives of quiet desperation – they can be much too noisy for that – and yet desperation is ever in the air. Dennis Barton’s trouble is sex, and who he’s having it with, and how good the danger of it makes him feel, and how he feels guilty about the poor schlub she’s married to, but not guilty enough to stop. Paul’s a nice guy, which somehow spells trouble. Thirty years later, Mick runs into a high school reunion. Cosmic Andy hears voices, and talks back to them, and he has a few angels who protect him, but … well, you know. Chuck and Dan are stuck at 11,000 feet on the side of a mountain for a very long time.
Stuck is pretty much where Baker’s characters are, usually between a rock and a hard place, although the hard places can feel pretty soft and inviting at the time. His stories are not in the strict sense political, and yet somehow they manage both deep sorrow and surprising joy as they capture some of the malaise gnawing at a nation at war with itself. So are these men at war with themselves, and with the world they can’t quite manage that swirls around them. Their stories drip a kind of sad and sorry and strangely funny lost love. The damnable thing is, they also make for remarkably good company.