By Brian Alan Ellis; Illustrations by Waylon Thornton
House of Vlad Productions
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
The title says it all. King Shit by Brian Alan Ellis is about one night of bar-hopping with Elvis McAllister and his knife-wielding friend Ralph. Elvis is a “factory worker, storyteller, Graceland enthusiast, and overall hornball.” Once again we return to the “Sick-Sad” world of Brian Alan Ellis. Last year I reviewed Ellis’s short story collection, The Mustache He’s Always Wanted but Could Never Grow and I enjoyed reading this as well. It is similar to Mustache in its episodic nature and its cavalcade of trashy losers and misfits. Beneath it all is an undercurrent of violence and a humor that grants the bar crawl a bit of much needed levity.
The novella revolves around one night hopping bars with Elvis and Ralph. Elvis is also dealing with his break up from Donna, who he later witnesses cussing underneath a street lamp. Prior to this, he encounters a series of odd characters. Rockabilly-greaser junkies, a bow-legged burlesque dancer, a Mexican dressed as Santa Claus, and an angry dwarf. Elvis deals with each of these (sometimes hostile) characters, either reacting with amusement or getting punched in the face. Ellis writes each short chapter in a breezy lowbrow style. Between each chapter Waylon Thornton gives the reader a little illustration. The style reminded me of Duckman, the 90s-era cartoon with Jason Alexander voicing the misanthropic duck.
The revival of the novella has been one of the fascinating phenomena associated with bizarro literature. Browsing through the back catalog of Eraserhead Press, one sees many offerings below the 200-page range and some even down below one hundred pages. Bizarro literature seems to favor the short and shocking and King Shit is both. Despite accusations that the novella is slight, King Shit offers a perfectly constructed world with a limited setting. It only covers one night and some characters seem so outlandish that they probably wouldn’t exist beyond the page, but Ellis’s “Sick-Sad” world shouldn’t be taken literally. One of my favorite novellas is Daisy Miller by Henry James, but both novellas are similar only in their length.
On the other hand, with doorstopper series like The Song of Ice and Fire and Outlander, it is nice to read a book that can be finished in one sitting. We always assume The Great American Novel will be something epic and magisterial, littered with thoughtful nuanced characters and furrowed brows. The names Norman Mailer and Jonathan Franzen get thrown around and then assumptions are made. I choose to go in the opposite direction. Not Franzen’s Freedom but Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. And despite their notoriety for outrageousness, perversity, and offensiveness, why not include bizarro literature in what we consider The Great American Novel? King Shit is about two men’s journey during a particularly eventful bar crawl, but it also says a lot about class and culture in America. It is a finely wrought gobbet of sputum lobbed at the American middle class proprieties.
Out of 10/8.5; higher for fans of bizarro lit.