FOREVER ALONE DRONE: Jack Womack clears out the twentieth century

14 Dec

Simon Ings writes:

Jack Womack shares a UK agent with Margaret Atwood. It was pretty much by accident that I stumbled on this handy fact (Atwood had a story in our first Arc, The Future Always Wins) and even then I didn’t hold out much hope. I just knew I had to try.

Jack ploughs his own furrow, in novels that frightened the life out of me in my twenties (think Ambient; think Terraplane) and have since broadened into minatory, hallucinatory territory. Jack is interested in human virtue and kindness and goodness. Like any satirist worth their salt, however, he understands that the best way to describe these things is by depicting their absence.  Critics tackling his last novel, Going, Going, Gone (2000) were bowled over: this guy, they said, is the new Anthony Burgess.

Then – silence. There have been no novels since. There’s been no new short story in seventeen years. I picked up the phone, expecting nothing.

“The man who saved the twentieth century” arrived on our desk within weeks of our asking. Word perfect. Pitch perfect. Chilling. Heart-breaking. It drives my boss Sumit up the wall because Sumit can’t stand nostalgia and here is Jack using nostalgia like some sort of lump hammer to shatter all the reader’s notions about provenance and value and our place in the historical scheme of things. 

Here’s a short extract of what for my money is one of the finest stories we’ve yet published. Let’s hope it’s the first of many. Mr Womack was never a right lovely sight, but by God we need him, now more than ever:

“I told them to bring in the oldest stuff they found,” says Alan. “Let’s see how they did. What I don’t pull, take to the front. Cousin’ll be by soon.”

At the foot of the bed is a two-handled deep-sided oak wood tray holding long-empty bottles, labeled in radium-bright colours of the gone world: Acme Beverage, Forbidden Fruit, NuGrape, Mount Kineo Ginger Ale, Oertel’s 92, Lung Kuro, Spiffy Cola, Creme de Violette, Moxie. Alan nods at Larry, who carries it away, glass jingling against glass. Opening the first box in reach, Alan separates a sixteen-ounce plastic drinking glass from Dick’s Drive-In in Seattle from its sixty similar companions, all from different venues; and is reminded again that today old means, to most, last night.

“Cousin gets the place?”

Alan shakes his head, in the next box finding twenty-two board games, all tie-ins for TV shows first broadcast seven decades earlier.

“Landlord gets it. Rent stabilised. Was, anyway.”

“That’s what happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“Landlord had him taken out?”

“No,” says Alan, remembering the family of twelve in Queens, and the others. “They’d been in court for years before the ruling, but it never came to that.”

Opening a shoebox full of postcards, he gives a second’s attention to each, leaving behind those depicting calcite gardens in underground grottoes, horses diving into water tanks, cabbages big as Single cars, the Fuller Building in Springfield, rabbits with antlers, a diner in the shape of a muskellunge. He pulls every eightieth card or so, inevitably an actual photograph, placing it with the select: a boy with no body below the waist, walking on his hands; a wrecked locomotive, its scalded engineer sprawled in the foreground; a burned man hanging from a street light.

“What happened to him?”

“Heart. Outside, in the hall. Gone before he hit the floor.” Alan sighs. “That’s the way to do it.”

“Five flights.”

“Lugging two bags.” Opening a new carton, he sees menus.

“Like he needed more.”

Running idly through pages Alan is reminded why earlier generations had shorter lifespans: Nesselrode pie, stewed prunes, bowl of cream, fried brain sandwich, moo goo gai pan. From the midst of those advertising Ratner’s, Dizzy Whizz, Tiny Naylor’s, Locke-Ober’s, he draws only a single black two-fold oval the size of a child’s head. “Here. Put this in the box with these postcards.”

“Coon Chicken Inn?” Larry stares at the face on the front cover; the tilted cap, the red lips, the white teeth, the malignant eye. “Salt Lake City. Seriously?”

Alan looks up. “Evergreen.”

You can read The man who saved the twentieth century in Arc 1.4: Forever Alone Drone, out now,

for iPads and iPhones

for Android devices, Windows and Mac computers

as a collectible print edition

and for Kindle

If you would like to write for Arc, check out our new competition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: