The Hospital for Bad Poets by J.C. Hallman is his first book of fiction. I read one of his nonfiction books, The Devil is a Gentleman, and enjoyed it so had high expectations for the short stories of Hospital. I wasn’t disappointed.
The stories range all over the place from the straightforward approach of “The Fire,” about two men in Southern California who stay behind to try to protect their homes from an out of control fire after the neighborhood was ordered to evacuate, to the more conceptual approach of “The Epiphenomenon,” about the average man not feeling quite right and the strange events that affect his cure.
Most of the stories have some sort of weirdness that happens in them (for lack of a better way to describe it) that is often, but not always, a psychological element. Take “Utopia Road,” for instance. It begins with the building of one of those idyllic suburban havens. Everyone on the street moves in at about the same time. The neighbors are all neighborly, the houses, the lawns, the kids, are all perfect incarnations of the American Dream. It truly is utopia. But even Eden had a snake in it and on this street it is the house at the end that belongs to the Royces. Mr. and Mrs. Royce keep to themselves which is unneighborly. Their teenage son Tom is more social. He’s thought to be slightly annoying but generally fine until the big block party at which he soundly beats every one of the husbands in the ping pong tournament as their wives, all of whom have a slight crush on the boy, watch and cheer on the youth. After that, Tom gets blamed for everything that goes wrong–the exploding mailbox, the broken window. Regardless of whether Tom was seen in the vicinity, he becomes the scapegoat as Utopia Road begins to literally crumble. The Royces are chased from the neighborhood but even after they are gone things continue to go wrong and the neighborhood continues to blame Tom to the bitter end.
The stories have good humor in them too. Like “Autopoiesis for the Common Man,” in which a nursing textbook called The Conjugal Cyst becomes an aphrodisiac. Or, my favorite story, “The Hospital for Bad Poets” where ambulances arrive to treat bad poets who have become comatose from the intensity of their work. Bob and Mike arrive on the scene. Mike is a trainee and Bob has instructed him to look around the room for clues to the situation that might help in the treatment of the poet. Mike finds a piece of paper in the typewriter and pulls it out. It is the last thing the poet was working on before he fell from his chair. Mike scans the page and:
“This is awful,” Mike said.
I groaned and my head hit the floor, perhaps for the second time.
“Watch the C-spine, Mike!” Bob said. “You can’t be held liable for disliking the work of a bad poet, but you are responsible for insufficient care. Granted, we’re not dealing with the penetrating trauma of a slam poet or gangsta rapper here, but even a standard verse emergency runs circles around your typical diabetic episode. This is a poet! And poets can go south fast. Look the wrong way and even Wordsworth will take the big six-foot dirt nap. Poets have feelings up the ass.”
And it only gets funnier. They transport the poet to the hospital where he is examined by a doctor and a bunch of interns. But when the poet in room five threatens to “code” they lose interest in our bad poet’s ordinary malady and rush off to try and rescue the other poet because:
If every poet codes, who will understand them? Poetry is hard enough already.
I liked some stories better than others, but that is generally the case with any book of short stories. The book is worth the time and I look forward to seeing what Hallman will produce next.