At the launch of this book on Thursday evening, I asked William Dewey why the first edition was limited to one hundred copies. Apparently the printer, Rebel Press, struggled to execute the paperback-with-a-dusk-jacket format; future runs will feature a more traditional paperback cover. A more practical answer than I had suspected, and one I was reminded of as I read my numbered copy (95/100): most odd numbered pages feature smudges in the top right hand corner, and I suspect everyone’s pages 103 and 104 are upside down.
Small, forgivable glitches which might, if they stood alone, add to the charm of a book which contains only eleven stories, one of which is four lines long. It’s 216 pages, but each page is only 11cm x 13cm. My Tender Jaw looks like a book but it doesn’t look like a novel. Perhaps this is the future of the short story collection, I thought as I ran to the bus with the book comfortably inside my coat pocket. (Unfortunately the small print and the windy route of the Number 23 bus made actually reading in transit difficult.)
The collection opens with ‘The Reader’s Story’ and five pages in, the main character realises he’s in a story by William Dewey. The story name-check’s Camus’ The Literary Man, but still has a lot of work to do to convince the reader that there is both originality of thought and content within this metafiction. For this particular reader there was enough humour (“Cliff,” Reed said, and he smiled back. “You almost didn’t make it in this draft.”) and restraint for the story to receive a pass mark, but I was left uneasy about the course the rest of the collection would take.
Fortunately, the course is never predictable. ‘The Imperceptible Man’, sees the narrator discover he is, uh, imperceptible. ‘Two Gallants In A Small Town’ features the reunion of two high school friends after one is released after eight years in prison. We get a tale from childhood (‘The Science Fair’), a Western (‘Forever Drift’), and a story of sexual initiation (‘Later Winter’). While William Dewey never steps forward as author so profoundly as in the opening story, the occasional bout of over-writing (“I remember not disabusing her of the notion,” p.148) means he is never far from the reader’s attention.
Also distracting were the typos and editing oversights, which had a way of aligning with writerly ticks. (Whenever a male’s hair colour is described, it’s some form of blond, though most of the time it’s spelt as ‘blonde’).
Most of the stories are set in the United States, particularly Colorado, from whence Dewey hails. The story which held the most interest for me, however, ‘The Indolence of Disposition’ (worst title in the book, hands down), was the only one set in New Zealand. Featuring an American working in a book store in Wellington and his dealings with two more Americans sent to New Zealand to keep out of trouble, it is an interesting inversion of the typical New Zealand reference in American story-telling (character X is sent to NZ, never to be heard from again, while the story moves on in the U.S.). In a collection that searches for new modes to plunder, this is one of the few times we are presented with a truly fresh perspective.
This is Dewey’s second book to be released by publishing collective Lawrence & Gibson (see also the novel Without A Soul To Move, 2008), and his swan song as a heavily asterisked New Zealand writer as the expiration of his visa meant he departed the country a few days ago.
It is encouraging to see that, despite mainstream New Zealand publishers’ unwillingness to publish work that isn’t Kiwi enough (some combination of author’s birth and abode, book’s setting and subject matter), a book like My Tender Jaw & Other Stories can be published in this country. As I argued last year, an apprenticeship in the public eye can be a great advantage for a writer. Hopefully William Dewey finds similar opportunities wherever he winds up next and these books find their way back to New Zealand.
You know if he makes it big we’ll all claim him as our own, eh?