The first novel of Sean Carswell’s I read was his 2008 Train Wreck Girl, and I was an immediate fan. Like Carswell, I grew up in the backwaters of Florida, so I connected with the familiar settings and characters almost as much as I did his seemingly effortless writing style; a style that conveys a working class, DIY punk ethos in its very delivery, without bringing attention to itself. While other “punk writers” can seem as obvious and ham-fisted in their prose as an obligatory NOFX singalong (and I’ve got nothing against NOFX), Carswell’s authorial voice seems more comfortable and worn, like your favorite Arrivals or Worriers song.
So, it was not without a bit of trepidation that I approached Carswell’s newest collection of short stories, The Metaphysical Ukulele, in which he purposefully compromises his own authorial voice. The dozen stories are all about well-known writers written in that writer’s style. And, yes, each story also revolves around a ukulele. But the literary conceit of writing about an author in that author’s style is a device that could go horribly wrong so easily. I’m sure the very premise behind the collection would make many creative writing teachers’ blood run ice cold. Artful homage can become painful parody with the overuse of a trope. Emulation can collapse into shallow stereotype under the weight of forced inside jokes.
But goddamn does Carswell nail it in each and every story. Throughout, he is borrowing stylistic tricks—informed references and passages from each author—yet his own authorial voice remains intact. Yes, I was already a Carswell fan, but for fuck sake, this collection should simply not succeed at the level it does. The Herman Melville opener, with its references to questionable sexual escapades and ukulele accompaniments, barely prepares the reader for the heights that Carswell hits. By the time you get to the Chester Himes story (in which a ukulele effectively transforms Chester Himes, struggling artist, into Chester Himes, world-renown detective writer), you will be a believer. By the utterly brilliant Richard Brautigan story, Carswell is hitting his stride. Each story I read became my new favorite story. How could he top the inspired story about Raymond Chandler as told from the perspective of a private dick hired to find the blocked writer’s ukulele? How about with a story of a young woman initiated into a secret band of ukulele players that may or may not include the one and only Thomas Pynchon, written in the style of Pynchon? To dare to pull that story off—hell, any of these stories—takes some serious gall. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to testify that Sean Carswell has the skills to meet the challenge and then some. Highly recommended. –Kevin Dunn (Ig Publishing, PO Box 2547, NY, N