A good chapbook isn’t so hard to come by these days. Readers demand from them the usual things—witty characters, quick turns, plots that use their story’s limited real estate wisely. But what’s odd about the best chapbooks is that they seem to deliver what the reader never knew was wanted. This is what Alex McElroy’s debut chapbook, Daddy Issues, accomplishes, despite its brevity: An amalgamation of voice and shifting perspectives achieved so subtlety, even the most seasoned readers will reach the last page unsure of how they got there, nor with any certainty of how they should feel about the journey.
While the stories in the collection vary in length and complexity, each uses its space upon the page with precision, moving from sentence to sentence with an almost poetic economy of the written word. In the opening piece, titled “The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart,” McElroy entices the reader to abandon preconceptions of what a story on loss and grief should look and sound like. The artfully arranged flowchart frames the sorrow of a grieving father within a context that forces the reader to feel even more strange and uncomfortable than would otherwise be possible. Strong opening pieces to short collections will endeavor to capture the reader’s attention and hold it, violently if necessary, and this piece accomplishes that goal with an oft-neglected fact of short fiction—what is not said in a text is more important than what is.
Most often, these stories offer a slow reveal of a central theme, or sometimes an existential realization that becomes folded neatly between the lines of dialogue and subtext. I delight in the experience of being surprised by a piece of fiction, as many readers do, even when the surprise offered by the author causes me to feel fooled or misled. So it should come as no surprise that moments of melancholy saturate these stories, most notably in the fourth piece in the collection, “A Man and A Man,” a parable of sorts. McElroy’s shifts in tone and voice in this piece illustrate his precision, each line crafted purposefully. The dialogue sets the reader up for what can only be described as an expected fall—it’s as though I saw the heartbreak coming from the first paragraph, but was still shaken when it arrived.
Concluding the collection is the most enticing piece, the title story, “Daddy Issues.” The story explores the implications of parental shortcomings in an unsurprisingly fresh way. A roster of daddies along with their many follies (some longer than others) tugs the reader away from the dream-like tones of the previous stories and empties me in a cataclysmic pile of paternal regret. The best part: in a chapbook titled Daddy Issues, there’s no other place I would rather be than beside myself, distilling the text, consuming the last few lines of such a candid commentary and reveling in the discomfort therein.
Daddy Issues is a great read for fans of great imaginative texts. The stories deliver a novel’s worth of substance, gathering their staying power from great prose, dialogue, and voice. Within just a few short pages, McElroy reminds us that the chapbook is alive and well.
JONATHAN AUSTIN PEACOCK is a poet and teacher of language and literature. He teaches writing at the University of West Florida. His work has appeared in 5x5 Literary Magazine, Mason's Road, Ruminations, and others.