Oh, the Ups and Downs of Childhood
A “palooka” is a shitty boxer, an oaf or a big lug, or a boxer who takes a dive. How the word relates to Palooka’s mission statement I suspect has something to do with scrappiness as a virtue in a pugilistic literary environment: “We’re determined to find those writers and artists who are flying under the radar, producing great works that are going unnoticed by other journals.” Online the editors expand their statement, saying they want “the underdog in the literary battle royale” who is “hungry and relevant.” Get in the ring! is the gesture Palooka is making to writers; maybe, then, Watch for blood! is what it’s saying to readers.
Easily mistaken for a graphic novel, Palooka 2’s glossy, bright cover features more than a dozen cartoonish, monstrous clowns—button eyes and jagged teeth—descending on a grassy playground, terrorizing cartoon children. In “They’re Out to Get Me,” by artist Joe Havasy, one clown in a jersey dunks a kid through a basketball hoop. It anticipates the issue’s concern with childhood angst.
Palooka’s editors have done well to fill the journal with variety. One photo of a donkey’s face and a pair of human legs extending skyward joins a photo essay on apartment hunting in Manhattan and three other visual works of art; the poetry runs in abstract, lyrical, and narrative veins, and the contributors come from widely different backgrounds.
The formal variety belies the journal’s artistic homogeneity. The majority of the writing in this issue uses the first-person narrator, and this choice overlaps very much with writing about childhood. Editor Nicholas Maistros writes in the front of the magazine, “We all seem to be in the middle of a storm, and these writers and artists are all responding to it in different yet collectively elemental ways. They look to fire...They look to the sky...They run.”
However, In “Jonathan’s Note” at the end of the issue, editor Jonathan Starke acknowledges childhood’s top place: “To write about childhood, one must be able to go deep into the colors of youth and paint the weather of that life. The strokes are all over this issue.”
I dug into the issue from the front.
“The Accidental Marathon” is a headlong rush of a short story about a young man who wakes up and runs, then runs laps around the office and bewilders his coworkers, and then goes home and proposes to his girlfriend. The running here is the story: the point is energy, and the impulsiveness of making big decisions while young.
“Born,” a poem by John King, gives us a glimpse of a man arriving at the birth of his nephew, the baby a “grinning bullet suspended in the air,” while his poem, “Spinning,” is a touching ode to his father, kneeling to “help me make my favorite toy go”—an Evel Knievel wind-up.
I found it difficult to navigate the 12-page graphic strip that follows. Frames of people in sheer-black sunglasses, sentence fragments like “Brave the unstable atmosphere,” floating eyeballs—Jonny Gray’s “Vacation on the Moon” paints a complicated dystopian landscape.
A rangy nonfiction piece takes us to 1969, where 10-year-old future author Patricia Bjorklund visits her “Nonnie” and her “egg-shaped” Sicilian Grandpa to watch the moon landing. Homemade ravioli is on the menu: “I took another ravioli and slipped it under my top—there I was, a girl with breasts...I cupped my breasts. Cool, clammy, but not so foreign.” I enjoyed the scene in its strangeness and tone.
In Erika Donald’s poem, “Bitter,” ambivalence wins the day. Despite the author’s clear misgivings about the mother figure with “her open palm, her spatula and hairbrush,” childhood also tastes like “fresh strawberries and cream.”
Marcia Aldrich’s “Tests” has test questions in blue font, answers in black, and grader’s notes in red. It’s not a novel concept at this point, telling a story by highlighting the strain a character feels communicating through a test or essay, but it’s great for watching tension bubble comically to the surface. Community college sociology 101 professor “Dr. Joy” snidely suggests “taking your next exam on a full stomach.”
Poet Derek JG Williams brings us “Cable TV,” a poem about a boy watching scrambled porn and thinking about “The sex I will have” in his future. It was at this point that Palooka 2’s interest in childhood struck me. Three poems and the longest piece in the first 48 pages are expressly about it.
“Pemiscot Man” brings the most fully drawn character to the issue, do-gooder Sheriff Troy Barry, the completely benign antagonist in a piece full of strange tension. It goes for the atmosphere of somewhere rednecky, assembling a setting out of sheets instead of curtains and a young narrator living with his grandmother, who goes by “Miss Mother.” If you spot “on account of” in a short story, you’ve entered dialect country, no doubt about it. But the dialect that peppers the speech sometimes slips away when the narrator, Abiel, lyrically describes his surroundings. I liked the dialogue here but was ulimately confused by the narrator’s character.
Devin Murphy’s flash piece, “On the Side of the Road,” is a highlight of the issue because of its strong writing. The narrator parks his car at the edge of a field and runs through thousands of Canadian geese, scattering them into the air: “A few birds snap at my legs like snakes. Livid geese bodies bounce off my chest.”
Jim Miller’s nonfiction piece, “Firebug,” gives us a man, writing in an alphabetized dictionary, telling the story of his boyhood fire-related adventures. The form allows him to alternate between the objective language of reference and the personal closeness of a first-person narrator (and even, under the entry for “You,” the second person). Though the piece was formally innovative, in the end I wasn’t exactly sure what its goal was, or what I ought to take away from reading it.
Bond Benton’s nonfiction travel piece, “Conquest at the Maiden Tower,”
departs from the rest of the journal in terms of setting (Baku, Azerbaijan) and protagonist (married, jaded corporate language trainer on a business trip). There’s no actual “conquest” involved, but there is some endearingly awkward contact with “the best traditional belly dancer in Baku.”
Staying in Eurasia, Joanna Eleftheriou’s narrative prose-poem, “Deserters,” witnesses five Greek soldiers entering an abandoned house during wartime and then leaving one of their number there to recuperate from a leg wound. Abruptly, the journal goes to a poem about child abuse, coupled with a return to the first-person point-of-view. Christian Bloomfield’s “The Dining Room Chair” bookends with the image of tying down the titular chair as part of a furniture-moving process. “I examine your arms and legs for the familiar spiral burns I had when my parents tied me to you, rocked me with their smacks." Childhood is something that can’t be forgotten and was unpleasant, it suggests.
So does the piece that follows. Sanjukta Shams’s short nonfiction piece, “Fire,” portrays the author remembering her experiences as a five-year-old girl at the Bangladeshi cult compound her mother joined. It’s thick with trauma, both in what it recalls and what it attempts to erase with ambiguity and short, declarative sentences: “Perhaps the heat did not inflict as much pain; it was all painful back then, and now.”
Jen Murvin Edwards’s short-short, “Bike Riding,” takes aim at suburbia through the eyes of a collective childhood “we,” a nebulous character pedaling the street on bicycles, wearing bathing suits and speaking in a headlong rush of surface-glossing, subtext-cementing language. There is an implied pedophile in “the house on the corner,” an implied affair between neighbors, and an implied lesbian relationship between two divorced mothers. Short on characterization and conflict, it’s an interesting web of tension, a story defined by what its narrator chooses to notice and not notice in the neighborhood.
Havasy returns with a cartoon, “A Scientific Fact,” and gives the reader a page on which to rest. A bird on a branch tries to win back (its/his) lover, who is heartbroken. Unsuccessful and then also heartbroken, the bird leaves, swallows an alka seltzer, returns, and vengefully explodes in the other bird’s face. It’s darkly funny.
I liked Kelly Morris’s short-short, “Cat’s Eye,” because it vividly depicts in just three pages a character changing and going from one state of existence to a very different one. The effective use of a plainspoken first-person narrator helps to bring the world of the 16-year-old girl protagonist off the page, especially when her father violently clutches her arm while she attempts to sneak out and watch the stars with her friend. Consequential conflict is one of the great joys of reading, and it’s nice to discover it here.
Well-built, Palooka has the potential to become a literary journal able to land devastating blows as it gets more issues under its belt. I hope its online presence expands a bit to bring us more features, such as searchability, contributors’ bios, and more background about its founding and operation. Palooka accepts fiction and nonfiction 500-15,000 words long and up to five poems, year-round on Submishmash, as well as other art. Several pieces from the issue reviewed here are available for free online.