‘The Big Baby Crime Spree’: Quirky and Darkly Funny

In a review I wrote of an earlier story collection by Darrin Doyle, The Dark Will End the Dark, I compared his stories to those of George Saunders, where “the reader often begins in a realistic realm, one that is deceptively familiar, but is soon transported to another dimension.” The stories in Doyle’s new book, The Big Baby Crime Spree, only reinforce that assessment. This slim collection filled with quirky, dislikeable characters is an excellent companion to that earlier volume, and it can be read in the same spirit.

The characters are dislikeable, but not necessarily unlikeable. The protagonists of the five stories are all underachievers, but to the extent they are losers, they are losers in unique, interesting ways. In the collection’s first story, “Kaleidoscope,” Jerry is making a pittance writing meaningless freelance articles for a newspaper. Gary, in “The Baby Doll,” is working in a record store while trying, half-heartedly, to break into the advertising-jingle market. Jasper, in “Art of the Dead,” has rejected his wealthy family and is scraping by as a street artist of dubious morals. The main character of “The Odds” is a hustler who survives on winnings from his bets on other people’s pool games and by mooching off his grandmother. And Travis, who goes by the name Gary to hide his identity, in “The Big Baby Crime Spree,” is a hospital orderly plotting a bizarre crime employing babies.

Men behaving badly is a theme that appeals to me, echoing as it does my own recent story collection. Despite their missteps — usually at the expense of the women in their lives, of course — they aren’t all bad. In “Kaleidoscope,” Jerry is confronted with two problems and he isn’t sure how to deal with either. People are letting their dogs defecate on his lawn and his old friend and current landlord Ray is dying. He tries, though, or thinks about trying to do something, and given his lack of professional success, that almost seems good enough. “In the light of day, however, the process of dialing the Petersons’ number and actually talking to Ray about the tumor (or not talking to him about the tumor) seemed complicated and unnecessary. Besides, Jerry reasoned, an ill person like Ray would be napping during the afternoons. And if he weren’t napping, he would certainly want to be alone with this family.” 

Even Travis, who is plotting “The Big Baby Crime Spree,” has been the caretaker for his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease, and the hustler who bets against the survival of his grandmother in “The Odds” has been looking after her in her long decline. That bet, by the way, makes twisted sense to him: “I had to bet on Death. I had no choice. If I’d bet on Life, then [the surgeon] would have had a vested interest in botching the surgery.”

Mostly, though, these men are despicable, which is the ironic charm of the collection. Gary in “The Baby Doll” is maybe the worst of the lot. Not only does he use a bizarre scheme to overcome his own infertility in order to impregnate his wife, he continues his affair with the woman who unknowingly aided him. At least he’s haunted, in an inexplicable horror-story kind of way, by a moaning baby doll, providing some of the retribution he deserves. And Travis in “The Big Baby Crime Spree” gets his comeuppance when Rhonda, the nurse who appears to be helping him, reveals the fatal flaw of his scheme.

As a whole, the book is darkly funny, leaving the reader wondering just how far away from reality these odd stories have strayed. Would someone really bet a surgeon that the operation he’s about to perform will fail? Would someone really think he could use babies to commit robbery? In the world according to Darrin Doyle, the answer is a resounding yes.

FICTION
The Big Baby Crime Spree and Other Delusions
By Darrin Doyle
Wolfson Press
Published March 1, 2021