Jason Ockert’s debut story collection, Rabbit Punches, traces the loosely connected lives of characters who seek belonging across a bizarre iteration of the American South and Midwest. Although this collection was published 15 years ago, Ockert’s stories remain relevant in a time of American isolation and unrest, especially as current social and political phenomena like white supremacy and incel culture capitalize on similar feelings in the same regions today.
Despite the context, these stories are funny, often disturbing, and generally readable throughout, with an effect often falling somewhere between fever dream and k-hole. They reveal a particular way of being, or maybe just of feeling. This is due as much to the compelling writing as it is to the strange characters and events of the book: A high-schooler botches his romantic advance toward an old woman and ends up saving her life; a brother challenges an entire town to trial by combat for the chance to marry his pregnant sister; a hardware store clerk asks a woman buying rope, “Is this rope for hanging?”
That feverish effect is most clear in the first story. The main character, Deet, awakes with a head injury and, as we begin to realize the extent of his brain damage, he nods: “I nod my head because my head nods and it would be nice to go out sometime.” The characteristically blunt, repetitive phrasing works here, and the almost-numb style is often a high point in the stories. Ockert’s style can also be grating, especially in sections that concern external events. Later, in Mother May I, a bunch of balloons “rub together, making rubbing sounds.” In another, “Toast toasting in the toaster jumps.” Despite some clangs, or maybe because of them, Rabbit Punches usually manages to keep the reader engaged.
Plot-wise, it helps that the stories are all at least loosely connected to each other. They end vaguely, perhaps leaving space for other characters, the world and the reader to fill in. Three stories in the middle are essentially parts of the same story, almost as if from an unfinished novel. Other stories are connected only by geography. As a result of these gaps, some endings are unsatisfying and there can be a sense of incompleteness. The very short pieces are intensely personal, although they create expectations that aren’t really addressed anywhere else. But other stories, especially Leaving, capitalize on the richly detailed world of these stories in a way that any one piece could never accomplish.
The strengths of Rabbit Punches cut against it. At the end of Leaving, which is overall a beautiful piece, “trees are green” and everything is fine. There’s an intriguing dialogue about masculinity contained in the story, so these simple remarks are somewhat effective in relation to the subtext. Unfortunately, the almost-numb style and vagueness prevents the story from saying anything new about the larger issue, or even his characters.
At best, Ockert’s collection is captivating in both strangeness and familiar human feeling. All of his characters want to find their place. Even if a particular story doesn’t succeed, the characters’ lives and triumphs, strange as they are, rarely hit false.
With this debut effort, Ockert produced a textured, rich and unique story collection, often a very fun ride. Patient readers who love strangeness and are interested in American alienation will probably get something from this newly reprinted collection, and it has this reader interested in Ockert’s more recent efforts.
By Jason Ockert
Published November 16, 2021