Book Review: One More Number by Craig Rodgers – Justin Cooper

About ten years ago, my friend Calvin got assigned to review the latest album by the Haunted Windchimes, an “extremely popular” band from his hometown, Pueblo, Colorado.

The album was “shit,” he told me recently. He’s right. But he feared that if he wrote that, cool people would beat him up, and he said his friends were worried for him, too.

“In Pueblo,” Calvin said, “it’s basically illegal to say anything negative about the Haunted Windchimes.”

I’m left in a similar pickle when it comes to reviewing One More Number, Craig Rodgers’ new collection of six short stories. Not because I’m worried about getting jumped by cool Twitter lit guys, thinking maybe they’ll burn me with their profile picture cigarettes, but because I’m wondering: “Is this town big enough for criticism this harsh?”

No one in the clique of writers Rodgers hangs around on Twitter — which likely makes up the bulk of my readers here — is a famous writer. Mostly it’s amateurs like me, desperate for a couple of clicks on the latest thing they wrote for free. And Rodgers has done something we all hope to do: He got somebody to print his words on paper, bind the paper together and sell it. 

Why spend my time punching laterally?

Because Rodgers asked Calvin if he knew anybody who could review his book, and I told Calvin I’d do it. So here’s the truthful, authentic review we’re both a bit uncomfortable about.

There’s a lot to wonder about in One More Number.

I wondered why a nameless voice on the phone is looking for a centuries-old violin washed away in a flash flood. I wondered why everyone seems transfixed by the trumpet case an unruly bar patron left behind. 

But it isn’t only the stories themselves that were puzzling. Often, I reached the end of a sentence and wondered: “What did that mean?”

And not in a good way.

Most of the stories in the collection are promising in one way or another. But all are hamstrung by writing tics that make them too hard to read. 

The stories grow out of intriguing premises and often glimmer with good ideas. But hacking through them sentence by sentence is so laborious that by the end, they aren’t worth it.

“King Bronislav,” the story about the lost violin, is a tentpole story in this collection and makes for one of Rodgers’ strongest showings. But it gets off to a rocky start with this bewildering line: “The room is set in dark.” 

The ensuing paragraph — a lengthy account of a man untying his shoes and picking up a package — contains no clues as to what it means for a room to be “set in dark.”

Rodgers sometimes chooses not to lead nouns with an article, like “the” or “an.” A man picking up a pen, writing in a notebook and ripping out the page becomes: “From desktop he takes up a pen and scratches out words on pad and tears the top page from its moorings.” 

Rodgers’ spin on the English language mangles his writing to an often ridiculous degree. He has a tendency to inflate simple sentences into strange, gangling things. (“Moorings”? Are we talking about a fishing boat or a piece of paper?)

Combine that with a habit of putting adjectives after nouns and you end up with something like this: “Through morning and midday miles of road cracked and meandering do pass under car as he heads ever west as if dragged onward by the passing sun.”

It’s just too hard to read.

The stories are cloaked in a mysteriousness and a weariness, as if the whole world is sagging a little and no one asks about the weird things anymore. Desolation and expanding emptiness seem just out of sight. 

Sometimes the permanent overcast hanging over the stories compounds Rodgers’ chronic problem of overcomplicating the simple things. 

How to describe a man sitting on a snowy curb and taking a pen from his pocket? In this collection, it goes like this: “Aldous sets can and spoon on a mound of snow that might once have been a curb. He takes a pen from some inner pocket and scribbles an address on a paper scrap.”

Who could ever say, in this vast, unknowable universe, what’s beneath that mound of snow? 

When the man reaches into his jacket, how can we be sure where he pulls the pen from, except from “some inner pocket”? 

The mystique becomes tiresome.

The story, “The Trumpet Man,” reminded me a bit of the video game, “Bloodborne”: A man wanders mostly aimlessly through a city brought low, its residents cowering indoors, in this case to avoid a blizzard. Things in this city aren’t the way they should be in a fundamental way. 

I understand the impulse to let the unknown trickle all the way through the prose. It makes everything sound a little bit cooler. It’s also a shortcut to profundity. But it’s a condescending bit of tone-setting to burden something as basic as sitting on a snow-covered curb with a sense of enigma.

Still, “The Trumpet Man” is one of the two best stories in the collection, which both follow questing men through encounters with the not-quite-normal people of Rodgers’ worlds gone faintly awry. 

The stories themselves are interesting enough — enough to make me wish they were written better — but don’t amount to much. They tend to end with a whimper, with characters either back where they started or not sure what will happen next.

Of the longer stories, “Going Home Again” comes the closest to success. A man is driving to his hometown. He’s looking forward to seeing a pier where a smiling old man would always play the accordion. Along the way, he fucks a prostitute for some reason. The lightly surreal end of the story is probably predictable for some, but for a few paragraphs, Rodgers aces a bittersweet homecoming that’s more emotionally nuanced than anything else in the book.

The finale of this collection was also a highlight. It’s a three-page sketch of an increasingly violent banjo performance and an audience growing out of control beyond the blinding spotlight. The performer wonders whether he is a good man, and as the readers, we’re left to wonder a lot about him as well. But because the story is only three pages long and wasn’t diluted by ponderous, annoying prose, it’s easier to overlook a lack of clarity.

Rodgers can learn a lot from this story. 

The rest were disappointing.

I felt that my time was particularly wasted reading “Mabel’s Piano Bar” and “He Is In a Clearing If You Can Find It.” 

“Mabel’s Piano Bar” is a good example of where Rodgers’ storytelling stumbles. 

We have the intriguing premise: A man earns a meager living playing a bar piano for tips and, night after night, catches glimpses of some kind of escalating gambling racket.

We also have the lackluster follow-through: In the end, everyone involved is killed in a gunfight, and the piano player gets on a bus and goes somewhere else. I’d skip this story.

“He Is In a Clearing If You Can Find It” starts with an urban legend about a man in a clearing in the woods. You can give the man a nickel to play you a song. If he plays a happy song, you’re good. If he plays a sad song, some undetermined bad thing happens. 

Immediately after she’s told this story, a woman finds the man on a bus — not a clearing — and hands him a nickel. What happens next? Rodgers doesn’t say. I was happy to move onto the next story.

When Rodgers’ stories end, it’s like they turn into a quickly fading puff of smoke. He waves his hands at the cosmos and shrugs his shoulders.

He isn’t in the question-answering business. But in this collection, Rodgers doesn’t ever strike the balance of readability and real imagination that would make these cryptic, dead-end stories feel worth the while.