Back in 2015, I reviewed Robert and Darrin McGraw’s ANIMAL DREAMS. I said, at that time, that I would buy and read anything they wrote, and they’ve written another one, and I bought it, and here’s the review.
The authors kindly sent me some door pictures to go with it.
Here’s the blurb:
What if people thought someone didn’t deserve to exist? And what if that someone was you?
NOT LIKE US is a humorous mystery about serious problems that still persist today. Whimsical yet dark, it deals with themes that resonate in today’s world: hatred, intolerance, prejudice, and self-justifying greed.
It’s 1934 and the Depression has hit the Arkansas Ozarks hard. Isaac is broke and about to lose his barbershop, so he doesn’t care that a carnival is in town. In fact, since his wife died, he hasn’t cared about anything. But dang it all, sideshow freaks are turning up butchered, and when Isaac isn’t cutting hair, he is also the sheriff.
The whole darn town is riding his back about these murders. Soon Isaac is squeezed between the secretive world of the carnies, who don’t trust him, and the local citizens, some of whom think freaks might be better off if they’d never been born. The townspeople demand protection, and this part-time sheriff seems more incompetent every day.
Probably the best thing would be simply to walk away from his problems. Shoveling horse manure on his brother’s ranch in Texas would seem like a step up in the world.
But what about the single mother Rachel, and the feelings Isaac doesn’t know how to cope with? And what about her young son, who might be the obsessed killer’s next victim?
Isaac struggles to unravel threads winding through the eugenics movement, gender identity, a religious demagogue, and Hitler’s “Jewish problem.” As his former friends in town turn against him, help comes—grudgingly—from a slew of the oddest, most quirky characters he has ever met.
Isaac is about to learn for himself what it means to be someone who is “not like us.”
Here’s my review:
I had the great good fortune to read this book in finished but not finally polished form, I’m telling you IT’S GOOD! The characters are each and all real, and the plot is both surprising and satisfying. You know how, in a good book, you go, “Woah, I didn’t see that coming!” but you kinda sorta did, so it doesn’t make you throw the book across the room, yelling, “BullSHI-IT!” the way you would if the writer had done it wrong? That.
Now, when some writers say “quirky characters” you know you’re going to laugh at the people? When the McGraws say “quirky characters,” they mean the people are going to tickle you because they’re uniquely individual and intensely human. The non-normative “freaks” and the supposedly normative townsfolk are no more nor less unique than one another, and no more nor less human.
As for the humor, it’s the kind that tickles my funnybone. It comes at the expense of people’s blind spots and foibles, not at the expense of their human dignity.
Here’s a sample of the McGraw style:
“Isaac! Step up here a minute,” the Judge called out from the front porch swing. “Bernard Fieldman tells me you let a carnival come to town without a permit. Is that the whole truth?”
“Yes, Judge, I…”
“Then I believe you. Always were an honest boy. I remember your mother Bessie. Fine lady. Pretty little thing, too.”
“Bessie was my aunt.”
“I surely did like your mother. Almost asked Bessie to marry me,” he said. “Say, if I had married Bessie, I’d be your daddy. Ever stop to think about that?”
“Not really. Rose was my mother.”
“That’s irrelevant and immaterial, son. Point is, if I’d married your mama, you’d be a lawyer today, instead of a barber. Maybe justice of the peace. See my point?”
“Uh, I suppose if you had married my mother, I’d be someone else, if that’s what….”
“You’re missing the point. Point is, you’re the law around here. You have to enforce the town by-laws.” The Judge leaned over the porch railing, and stared down at Isaac. “I helped write them, did you know that?”
“Yes sir, I believe I did.”
“But have you ever read the document, is what I’m asking. Just answer the question.”
“I have, in fact. It’s…”
“That’s my point exactly!” He pounded the porch rail with his folded-up magazine. “Just tell us, if you would, what the by-laws say about permits?”
“I’m referring to people being required to obtain permits for entertainment and things. Tell us what it says about that.”
“The subject isn’t mentioned, Your Honor.”
“It isn’t?” The old man scowled. “Son, I helped write that document, so be careful how you answer. You’re asking the court to believe there is not one word about permits?”
“No sir. It’s more a general…”
“This is a gross miscarriage, I have to say. This must be rectified expeditiously. I’ll have to rewrite the by-laws. A town can’t have people doing things without permits. Who knows where that might lead?” He thought for a second, then said, “What are you going to do about it, Isaac?”
“About the by-laws? Or a permit?”
“The carnival! That’s the issue before the court today. The paperwork can wait. What does it take to get you moving, son?”
“Well, Judge, I figured folks could just go and have fun.”
“No permits required. Just have fun. I’m sure they’ll be safe.”
“That’s why we have permits! To protect people from things!” Judge Parmiston sat down and opened his magazine. “Well, all right, but be more careful next time. We can’t have order and stability if people can do things without getting permission.”
About the Authors:
Robert McGraw has had several professions, but his most difficult job is
convincing his wife he’s actually writing even when it looks like he’s
only staring out the window. He is the author of numerous magazine and
newspaper articles, as well as five books. Two of his television scripts
won awards from the International Television Association.
A former professional symphony musician, Robert has a Ph.D. (all
but dissertation) in music. He also studied art at The Ruth Prowse
School of Art in Cape Town, South Africa.
Darrin McGraw graduated from Stanford University, received a Ph.D from
UCLA, and has worked as a writer and editor. He served for eight years
as the writing director of the Culture, Art and Technology Program at UC
San Diego. Darrin and Robert are also the authors of the humorous
thriller Animal Future, available on Amazon.com. [Note from MA: ZOMG, SO GOOD]
The McGraws assure me both books will be available in print Real Soon Now. When they are, I will buy them again.
Now for the doors:
Robert McGraw sez:
When we aren’t busy writing, the McGraws are usually busy arting. (“To art” is a verb, isn’t it? To write, to dance, to art…?) Nanci painted these 80-inch tall doors for a fund-raising project for a local arts co-op. Did I mention that these doors weighed about 75 pounds? Each! (And guess who got to move them all over the place. “Oh, Honey. Would you mind…?”) Check out Nanci’s humorous “eGiggles” free email and get a laugh (well, several laughs actually) every time. Just send “Subscribe” to email@example.com
These are kind of random, but awesome:
And these, which Darrin McGraw sends with these words:
Here in case you’d like to use any of them are images of carnivals in the New Deal era, all with a door or entrance theme. First is a photo of a carnival sideshow door. It was taken by Jack Delano in July 1940 in Old Trap, North Carolina. In addition I attach three photographs taken by the famous artist Ben Shahn, who was working as a documentary photographer for the federal government alongside Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. The first (crowds under FREE SHOW banner), from a carnival on July 4th, 1938 in Ashville, Ohio. The phrenology and photography booths are from an undated carnival in 1938, probably in London, Ohio. All photos public domain from the Library of Congress collection.
Thursday doors is the brainchild of Norm Frampton, photographer extraordinaire. Visit his site, enjoy his wonderful photographs, follow his directions, and enter a world of doors.
A WRITING PROMPT FROM ME TO YOU: Write about someone without a permit.