Shifting through “Gears”, a collection by Alex M. Pruteanu

Originally published at gnathic.

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These seventy (yes, 70!) short stories and poems in Alex M. Pruteanu’s Gears (2013, published by Independent Talent Group, Inc.) spin together in the way gears do, meshing teeth, creating torque, changing speed.  As I read through these stories and poems over time, I frequently questioned my own construct of reality, maybe every time I read a work. Even in the shortest of his stories, Pruteanu manages to change speeds from the slow, careful detailing of scene and character to driving you off of a cliff.  After reading some of the works that left me with nowhere to hide, I wanted to tweet at him: “Is anyone going to save anybody in even one of your stories? Will there be even one hero? Is there no good in the world you’ve created?” But then I realized that I am not actually fond of hero stories, at least not all the time.  So why did I have a reaction like that? I had to admit to myself that in my own reality “good” is a rare thing to find in a sea of selves and getting-what-you-can. You can let yourself be biased with optimism, but you can’t ignore the chasm splitting open right in front of your eyes.  These works made me look at this nation I live in, the United States, and the illusions people build for themselves about the possibility of a better world for everyone.  I know that sounds depressing, especially if you are an optimist.  But just because you acknowledge the depressing truth about things doesn’t mean all is lost. You can have motivations that aren’t negative.  Although, the fascinating personalities inside Pruteanu’s collection made me look at my family, friends, and acquaintances and wonder whether what motivates them has anything to do with the stories they’ve told themselves, or if it is always at its core about basic survival and the “social Darwinism” some people embrace.  Dark? Yes. And he has a kind of brutal honesty, that bald light bulb jutting down from the ceiling, that casts a stark light and uncomplimentary shadows. You swallow hard and accept gravelly truths, if you are not completely delusional.  (I’m feeling pretty sure the optimists have all stopped reading by now.  Sorry, Alex.)

When you hear that Pruteanu came to the United States when he was 10 years old, whisked away from a life under a Communist regime in Romania, you may be tempted to distance your life experience from the characters he creates.  You might think, “Well, that’s how life is for people over there.  Things aren’t like that here.” And it’s true that things don’t seem as difficult for many people in the United States.  But Pruteanu, it appears, has lived most of his life here in America since arriving in 1980, and the reality is that the freedom we perceive consists of layers. Some of what we perceive about our freedoms may approach accuracy, but much of it is illusion.  Plenty of people in the U.S. live with daily horrors. No matter where you live, whether the regime that controls your life is a government, a complex caste system, wealth stratification, actual slavery, or simply the difficulty of navigating a credit-based system, your freedoms are more limited than you may be willing to admit to yourself.  There is an analogy between the bleakness in many of Pruteanu’s works and most of our realities.  Bringing this point plainly home for readers in the States, Pruteanu makes sure to supply a number of tales set in the U.S. where the baseness of society shines through with a cracked smile.  Nothing ever changes.  People are mostly shit to one another. Even the cockroaches exploit the other cockroaches. (from “Saints”)  The people in many of Pruteanu’s stories are cruel, unwilling to stand up for victims, or powerless.  He describes worlds where every man must protect himself from often extreme violence and no one will come to his aid, but chance may assist.  How much darkness you sense in Pruteanu’s works depends on your own experience.  But the fact remains that these stories and poems, republished or published first in this book, work together to effect a definite torque on the reader’s mind.

In lighter moments, the thoughtful reflections and natural humor Pruteanu produces give a reprieve from the stories of human desperation.  While I didn’t allow myself to become lost in the depths of despair when reading his works (at least, not completely), there were times when I felt disgusted by some detail that Pruteanu tossed at the reader so casually––blood trails referenced almost offhandedly, disgusting human behaviors expertly tucked into the scenes like Easter eggs just before the denouement.  Literature should provoke a broad range of emotions. At least, that’s what I want from literature, not just entertainment.  I want to be provoked so I will question why I am feeling provoked.  I want to be made to look at my own motivations, my own base of knowledge and to see what needs to be improved or explored.  At provocation, Pruteanu succeeds in every work in this collection.  I’m not fond of making comparisons, but I did notice skills reminiscent of Albert Camus in the way Pruteanu’s narrative speaks directly to the reader in a nearly emotionless manner.  From this, the tone affects/infects your psyche as the ugly truths reach in unexpectedly and smack you around or sucker punch you.  It’s astonishing.

At times his uses snappy, film noir-ish dialogue as he does here in “Veracruz Fragments”:

“Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”
“What?”
“Nothing. It’s the book he wrote.”
“The book who wrote?”
“T.E. Lawrence.”
“Who?”
“Lawrence of Arabia.”
“I’m talking about the movie, ” Wolfgang said.
“I know.”
“What in the hell does that have to do with a book?”
“Nothing. Let’s get another drink.”

At other times the narrative comes across almost like Fred Savage in “The Wonder Years” had it been set in Romania in 1977:  Therapy was driving around the countryside with a little Grundig cassette player in the back seat and a handful of Glen Campbell tapes. (from “Two Sides of One Half”).  He can be confessional: And I kicked him, along with all of them. So I could fit in. (from “May Day”)

Maybe it’s due to my own dark perspective that the grittiness of his works stands out most strongly as I reflect on the seventy works in this collection.  Perhaps there is an equal amount of sunlight. Pruteanu certainly creates beauty of verse: Time has laid hold of a frozen speed. Time is that which separates. (from “Nathaniel Thurhurst”). And there is definitely a nice helping of jazz references in these works, for example: so i see miles through monk’s cigarettes…he takes his horn and walks upstairs… (from “Miles and Miles”).  Throughout the collection he demonstrates a knack for realistic and hilarious dialogue, such as this scene from “Man Goes, Again”:

“Edification.”
“Edification, you know….for my own uplifting information.  Enlightenment.
“I know what it means.”
“Well then why’d you stop me? Anyway. I run inside, grab the thing, come back out and start shooting.”
“Like a fool…”
“At’s right. Like a goddamned buffoon.  A saltimbanque.”
“Saltimbanque! Christ, I’ll be damned; you’re an aristocrat.”

Whatever your disposition (in case some of the optimists decided to push through), Pruteanu’s collection is worthy of exploration.  If you live in a bubble of sunshine and optimism, you might disagree with this collection.  But I think if you do and you don’t fight yourself on it, you will miss the point.  Life is hard, but Pruteanu’s characters keep going.  There is a perseverance in these stories and poems working together. Think: the Brothers Grimm spliced with Camus’ The Stranger.  Think: Terry Jones’ screenplay of “Labyrinth” grinding into Guillermo del Toro’s screenplay of “Pan’s Labyrinth”.  Like I said, I don’t like comparisons.  But these combinations approach how Pruteanu’s stories affected me as I shifted my way through them.  He’s not constructing fantasy worlds.  He doesn’t blow faerie dust at you, unless you think cigarette or meth smoke is faerie dust.  And if you aren’t paying attention and think you can predict what he is doing, he will prove you wrong. Pruteanu plays competition chess with your psyche by throwing unfamiliar moves that you think you’ve seen before; then comes the checkmate.  Sometimes it feels like floating, like you’ve interrupted a conversation you aren’t supposed to hear, like you are hiding behind a closet door waiting for a way to escape the monsters lurking outside. You will be entertained. You will cringe. You will laugh. You will be surprised, twisted, torqued. The title of this collection is more than appropriate; it’s perfect.