For Weeks Above the Umbrella: By Todd Dills, 76 pgs. By Sean Carswell

Sep 16, 2010

For Weeks Above the Umbrella is actually a chapbook, and a friend of mine once described chapbooks perfectly by saying, “You know what the difference between a chapbook and a zine is?  A zine is two bucks and a chapbook is eight.”  So, yeah, it’s staple-bound and photocopied, but it has a glossy cover and it’s pretty long and there are no graphics and the words are all in 9 pt. font, so that makes it enough like a book to warrant the $7 cover price and to fit it into the book reviews section.  Enough on the packaging, though.  Let’s talk about what’s inside. 



            In ‘60s and ‘70s, a writer named Richard Brautigan published a bunch of short and hilarious books that all had a writing style that was unmistakably Brautigan.  He wrote in short sentences and repeated himself a lot and had this really dry sense of humor that strikes you a just weird at first, but the more Brautigan you read, the more you get his jokes, and, brother, they’re funny as hell.  Brautigan wrote crazy books about sombreros falling out of the sky and a town going nuts as a result, or about private detectives who would be perfectly competent if they could just stop dreaming of Babylon, or about a other equally absurd and brilliant things. If you’re a writer and you read Brautigan, it’s almost impossible to not want to copy his style.  It seems so simple and easy to do, but it’s not.  It’s a really difficult style to copy.  And legions of writers have tried to copy his style and failed miserably.  And this brings us to Todd Dills, because Dills has a style that seems to borrow a lot from Brautigan. You have the lonely male protagonist, always about ten bucks from being flat broke, always somewhat destitute, always so lost in his head that he barely notices the destitution.  There’s a healthy serving of the absurd, and there’s a dry sense of humor that you don’t really get until you’ve been reading for a while, and once you get it, it’s pretty damn funny.  But, unlike most Brautigan-influenced writers, Dills lets his influence drop there and builds his own writing style. 



            The stories in this chapbook generally follow a few patterns.  First, he has a few “itinerary” stories, in which he writes a story out as if he’s writing a list of what he’s going to do when he, say, visits London.  Only, as you read the list, it’s clear that he’s not planning to, say, “get subjected to a video now by and of young American filmmaker cum YBA screwing her boyfriend in graphic filmic detail (shot of boyfriend piss in sink; girl in close-up, tits and large gut and cock-shaft shooting in, out, in, out, in out...). Feel very uncomfortably hot. Cross legs numerous times,” at 11:00 on his second day in London.  He’s writing about what he did, only acting as if he planned it all along. It’s pretty funny.  The second type of story he writes are the “week of” stories, where he’ll write journal-style about a week in his life, and tie them together by a common thread, like the “Week of Skunk Apes” (in which the narrator spends a week searching out a mythical beast, though most of his “searching” entails going to Toronto and getting drunk in bars) or the “Week of Grits” (where a southerner expatriated to Chicago undergoes a futile search for grits).  The best is the “Week of Hanks,” in which the narrator (probably Dills himself) is continually being told that he looks like Tom Hanks, and in the meanwhile going back to his family home in South Carolina for Christmas.  The third type of story he writes has to do with fun with food, and while you would think that fun with food stories would be more interesting than itinerary stories and week of stories, the exact opposite is the case.  The fun with food stories are overwritten pieces built around an obvious punch line.  There’s three fun with food stories, and they drag down the chapbook.



            All of the stories in this chapbook are kind of experimental in style, and they work best when Dills goes beyond the experiment and gets into some good storytelling.  This sucker is worth the seven bucks for the “Week of Grits” and “Week of Hanks” stories alone.  The itinerary stories are pretty funny, and there’s an amusing story that’s wrapped around Metallica’s Master of Puppets album, too.  All in all, it’s a good read. –Sean (