The stories in Boy Oh Boy by Zachary Doss are playful, surreal, sometimes dark, and always magical. This wonderful collection of inventive queer fabulist stories and flash fictions won the 2018 Grace Paley Prize.
Told in the second person, the stories feel personal, as if you are being pulled into the scene rather than feeling gimmicky. Reading Boy Oh Boy feels like it could be my own relationship unfolding before me.
While the stories are imbued with surrealism, there is also seriousness at work here. Each story is a kaleidoscope of the love, joy, longing, and loss we experience in relationships. Doss delves into the turbid waters of our desires and the discoveries we make about ourselves in relationships. In many ways, Boy Oh Boy is an exploration of the mirrored self that exists in any relationship – how we see ourselves and, in turn, how we are seen.
There is also a haunting vulnerability threading throughout the stories. Doss artfully captures and balances the humor and sadness that exists in every relationship, probing into the psyche to find a sliver of humor in the pain of a relationship splintering. And then he digs deeper, capturing how relationships shape us, how they sometimes consume us, even to the point of how we can inhabit the bodies of our partners, and in turn, be inhabited – sometimes long after the relationship has ended.
A wonderfully playful and slightly dark dive into surrealism in Boy Oh Boy is the story “Embodied,” where “your boyfriend is leasing space inside your body.” He “comes and goes as he pleases through a slit in your back, parallel to your spine.” And from his vantage point inside you, “he sees the parts of you that you can’t see, . . . with the light shining through your skin, your body is a cathedral.”
In the story “One Word For It,” the boyfriend endeavors to un-name everything, oranges and cupcakes are no longer oranges and cupcakes. “The homeless black dog” is no more. The restaurant he was fired from is now nameless. Until eventually, all the parts and features of you are un-named, and “you are naked and what remains is beautiful and beyond description.” This leaves the question, in the process of becoming wholly un-named, are you discovered anew in the relationship? And is the beauty in what remains a reflection of your true self?
The story at the heart of the book and winner of the 2016 Puerto del Sol Short Fiction Contest, “Bespoke,” is set in a futuristic society where nearly indistinguishably lifelike robot boyfriends have become acceptable life companions. A world of made-to-order boyfriends perfectly suited to your needs and desires.
The boyfriend is “there for you when you need him.” He “dresses up nicely for work functions, where you show off how handsome he is.” He is “nice to your mother.” He “likes to watch television exactly as much as you like to watch television, and you like all of the same shows.”
The idea of bespoke boyfriends begins to sound plausible, possibly even preferable. All the complications and heartache of a relationship are programmed out. That is until the new replacement boyfriend purchased on impulse “continues to function more and more poorly.” And later when new boyfriend discovers old boyfriend deactivated next to the vacuum cleaner and Christmas decorations in the hall closet, new boyfriend’s hate for you crescendos. Until finally, new boyfriend “lunges at you with a knife.” In the end, “Maybe, I am malfunctioning, you think, and nothing more after that.” So much for the perfect bespoke partner ordered precisely to your pleasures and passions.
In the story “Universal Boyfriend Theory,” Doss explores how we sometimes cling to our failed relationships, believing that it was our only hope for relationship happiness, no matter how miserable we might have been while in it. Somehow we should have learned how to be miserably happy because we are never going to get another chance.
While the stories in this collection are short, some only a couple of pages long, the metaphor-infused surrealism is so palpable that these stories root deeply in the mind and refuse to let go.
Sadly, Zachary Doss passed away much too soon, curtailing what were sure to be more literary gifts to come. Boy Oh Boy is a beautiful collection of his work, and my copy now rests on my bookshelf where it won’t collect dust.
Boy Oh Boy
By Zachary Doss
Red Hen Press
Published June 2, 2020