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Songs of Insurgency

Spencer Dew

‘Spring is insistent with thoughts of suicide.’
When she starts to cry I tell her it’s a quote from a poem, just to shut her up.

Reviewed by David Erlewine

Spencer Dew’s Songs of Insurgency is hysterical and heartbreaking, often brutally dark, rife with unhealthy sex, failures to connect, fetishes, injuries, and death.  The first story Blow involves a male narrator listening to a phone sex girl explain seeing, on her way to work, trees knocked down all along the Pacific Coast Highway. The image of those downed trees, “plus the way she relays it, her sense of wonder, her weary voice,” make the narrator “sad in a way [he] can’t put into words.” So, he tells her to describe what sucking his cock would look like. Blow ends with this: “But then I decided I’d spent enough, hung up, and just sat there alone thinking about the way that storm must have looked, coming through, the big trees bending, their shallow roots pulling up from the sand, trunks toppling, whole, then stacking up on top of each other where they fell.” The final story – Likewise, Rise Up, All You Angels of Disquiet – involves a phone sex operator and a narrator with an unresponsive penis and no idea where he is calling from. 

Songs of Insurgency is filled with 21 other stories, spreading out over approximately 100 pages. Though just averaging four pages a story, do not expect a quick read. Dew hits hard and often, making the reader go back to appreciate the sneaky brilliance. Getting a haircut, a wounded man in The Heart of It All, is called a “war hero”. The man’s friend, “checking her new hair in a hand mirror, with some suspicion, says, ‘He’s just a civilian casualty.’” In The Sea Beneath, an airplane engine “gives out above what were once the oceans of Kansas”, and the passengers “groan and weep, pray, vomit into waxed paper bags”. The descending plane is described from the point of view of those below as “what must be an angel, streaking, white-hot and radiant, across the sky, to arrow into the earth.” The narrator in Voodoo Pastoral hangs out at a park with his girlfriend who obsesses about her father, “that maybe the taste of his cock affected her adolescence”. She’s eating licorice, ignoring the narrator, when he says, “Spring is insistent with thoughts of suicide.” When she starts to cry he tells her “it’s a quote from a poem, just to shut her up.” 

Many of Dew’s characters and stories relate to 9/11, its continuing reverberations. In one of the collection’s most unsettling stories, Dogs of Goya, Velasquez, and Cervantes, two yahoos cause a blackout in Ohio, which gets blamed on “some vast, shadowy organization”. As a result, a Sikh store clerk in Mansfield is beaten to death while an Akron ophthalmologist awakens “to find his daughter’s terrier smeared across the kitchen window and a note in his mailbox that said ‘America will not be afraid.’” After Constantina takes place during a season when “everyone wanted to cut themselves” and “[e]veryone approximated depths of suffering.” Something horrific has befallen the country: “People felt bad about Los Angeles, but no one from our circle was in any shape to give blood.” The narrator in The Disaster Addict remains vigilant, waiting for “that voice of panic going live under the sirens and screams.” He longs “for the monstrous”, for “an anchor’s professionally practiced, transparently false calm.” When he finally gets his wish – a porch collapses during a college party half a block away – he is underwhelmed: “Such a letdown. So small in scope. A miniature tragedy. A horror hors d’oeuvre.” 

Other stories pit men against the women they date, fuck. In Cervical Days, a man breaks down while being considered for jury duty, so screwed up is he about his wife’s cervical cancer and her affair with the daytime bartender “at what had been our neighborhood bar.” The man agonizes of being “too terrified to eat your pussy, as if you had gone contagious.” In The Body Museum, a couple’s relationship falls apart while vacationing in Mexico City. Their vacation turns into a series of trips to a mummy museum, “led by a backward-walking docent down into the claustrophobic vaults, snaking along halls of the well-lit dead, only the most fragile of them behind glass.” The couple reaches “the point where we could no longer speak, except during sex, when she told me things to say, and that just can’t count.” She loses weight and becomes “so sickly pale”. Instead of her eyes, he sees only the outline of her sockets. He can’t touch her without thinking of all of the corpses. He realizes “this was the only fantasy she and I ever shared: touching the dead.” 

Spencer Dew touches on suicide in a number of stories, most prominently in The Exit Colony. People flock to the colony to kill themselves, to “graduate” from life. The narrator spends his afternoons wrestling corpses from the water, complaining about a new kind of patient “with a competitive mindset, approaching the situation like a contest, inventing new and creative ways.” 

The stories are not just death, disconnect, and despair. Dew expertly delivers funny, memorable lines. In Pay for Soup, Build a Fort, Burn that Down, the female narrator knows her weary and elderly mailman “would do anything” to eat her pussy. “He has hemorrhoids, and his home life is not a good one.” The Heart of It All features a Halloween-themed wedding where a Wolfman insists he’s actually “‘an ironic reconsideration of Teen Wolf’”, Richard Nixon makes out with a “purple-haired chick in leather”, and the bride comes dressed as Sylvia Plath.

Read a story by this author on SpencerDew.com.

David Erlewine's stories appear in The Pedestal Magazine, Keyhole Magazine, elimae, Word Riot, In Posse Review, and a number of other print and literary journals. He is a fiction editor for Dogzplot. He lives near Annapolis with his wife and children. He is a lawyer, but honestly not that kind.

PublisherVagabond Press

Publication Date: 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Spencer Dew lives in Chicago, where he is completing a PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is a member of the Chicago Review fiction staff. His stories have appeared in numerous journals, including 3:AM Magazine, Thieves Jargon, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, and Wandering Army.

Read an interview with Spencer Dew

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