Captive Audience by Dave Reidy
In Captive Audience, his debut, Chicagoan Dave Reidy collects seven quirky short stories, focused on characters ranging from a naïve boy about to enter high school to a mortality-pondering Abe Vigoda. Most of the stories are set in or somehow related to Chicago – the two mentioned above are the exceptions – and all are united by the thematic significance of performance. Mr. Reidy writes in clear, unpretentious prose; even when describing a song at a concert, he remains enjoyable:
Finally, in smooth unison, the two singers stepped forward, touched the lips to microphones, and sang softly in reverberant harmony. The bassist joined with a single, low note. At the start of the next measure, he played it again. The sound was vast and barren, but it lacked nothing. The Leonids, for the first time that night, sounded unbroken.
Mr. Reidy is describing a fictional band here, but – as mentioned above – he also centers his stories on real places, celebrities, and music. This is a potentially problematic choice: relying on a pop culture touchstone too heavily, or failing to depict it in a way that resonates with the reader, can cause a story to fall flat. I had rather significant doubts before beginning the collection that Mr. Reidy would be able to turn an approach that sounded like a gimmick into something worthwhile, and was pleasantly surprised to find him mostly successful. Sometimes, the concept works beautifully: in the title story, narrated by the agoraphobic Jim Ryan, who is unable to leave his apartment and lives off old comedy records – Bob Newhart’s early work in particular – is the best example. Early in the story, Jim describes the classic Newhart routine “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue”:
The audience heard only the press agent’s side of the conversation – Newhart would speak and pause to listen, speak again, then pause again to listen – but the Lincoln created around those pauses, a mosaic of the press agent’s repetitions and intimations, was utterly convincing.
A comedy club open below Jim’s apartment, and he takes an interest in the development of a determined but apparently hopeless open-mike regular named Tony. Eventually, Jim parts with his Newhart records, passing them on to Tony with an encouraging note, and the story concludes with Tony’s eventual return to the club as a paid (albeit opening) comic whose routine incorporates a Newhart-esque phone conversation climaxing with a callback to an seemingly-throwaway joke earlier in his setup. It’s a clever bit of mirroring on Mr. Reidy’s part to have Tony’s routine echoes the structure of the story itself, and it works as successfully as the carefully-tuned jokes he writes for Tony. Here, the pop culture feeds the story, rather than the other way around.
Other stories are less successful: “Thingless,” about a young boy’s struggles with the mysteries of adolescence and sex, perhaps depends a bit too much on the Neutral Milk Hotel songs he becomes fixated on. Opening story “The Regular” would be difficult to connect with unless familiar with Journey’s “Faithfully,” Cream’s “White Room,” and Frampton Comes Alive, though arguably those are familiar enough touchstones that it’s quibbling to fault them. And perhaps it’s quibbling to fault Mr. Reidy for relying on such touchstones regardless: in a very generalized sense, one could argue that’s what all storytelling is dependent on.
And on the other hand, that reliance leads to such stories as “In Memoriam,” about the aging Abe Vigoda (as of this writing, Abe Vigoda is still alive). Here, the frisson between the knowledge that Mr. Vigoda is not actually narrating the story and the story’s grounded, fact- and anecdote-filled depiction of an Abe Vigoda thinking back on his life and preparing for his death leads to an almost voyeuristic result that is entirely enjoyable.
Vigoda makes for an unsurprisingly sympathetic character, and the majority of Mr. Reidy’s stories are focalized through similarly flawed-but-likable narrators. The issue of likability is a complex one – certainly a story doesn’t need a likable narrator to be successful – but it turns out to be the unexpected flaw in Captive Audience. Mr. Reidy’s prose remains so similar throughout the collection that it’s difficult to discern much in the way of narrative distance, and some key moments seem to rest entirely on the reader’s perspective aligning with that of the focalizing character. This isn’t a problem when the character is a sympathetic one like Vigoda, Jim, or Kyle in “Thingless,” but it becomes one in some of the other stories.
“The Regular” barely pulls off its climax, as the narrator compromises his stated principles to participate in karaoke, but that’s because the narrator seems to recognize and understand his compromise. However, in “Post Game,” Tim Vilinski (a basketball player who “retires” when no team picks up his contract) experiences a climactic epiphany that only confirms character flaws that have been apparent throughout the story, robbing the moment of much of its impact. And the final story, “Dancing Man,” grants the narrator a triumph that feels surprisingly unearned. After having felt unappreciated the entire story, he manages to dance onstage with REM, and looks out at the crowd as “The kids roared again, and some of them started dancing, too. As their claps reverberated through my body, I closed my eyes and tilted my head back, absorbing their energy with both pride and humility.” It seems the reader is expected to share in this triumph, but having spent considerable time with the character, it’s clear he hasn’t shown an ounce of humility during the entire narrative. The moment – which ends the story and the collection – falls flat.
It is unclear whether these instances are flaws in Mr. Reidy’s execution or formulation, and they suggest that he is still developing his craft. But they are isolated failings in what is overall a highly promising and playful debut. Captive Audience is entertaining at worst and thought-provoking at best, and it certainly establishes Mr. Reidy as a talent to watch with interest.
Captive Audience by Dave Reidy
Ig Publishing, 2009
Paper, 200 pp., $14,95
Posted in Reviews