It’s been years since a book made me laugh so much. T. Sean Steele’s award-winning novella, Tacky Goblin, is as hilarious as it is weird. To put it as simply as possible, the story follows Travis back and forth from his parents’ house in Chicago to the flats of LA where his morbid, murderous sister, Kim, lives.
It’s difficult to place exactly what kind of book Tacky Goblin is without completely misrepresenting it, so when assertive mold spots begin talking to Travis and furtively transplant beefy, hairy legs onto him from the ribcage monster that looms over him at night, your guess at classifying it is as good as mine. But I venture to call it a cross between Mark Leyner’s “The Making of Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog” and a coming-of-age storyline.
The book is so nonchalant about its strange happenings that they could all occur without excuse or reason, but there are two moments early on in the story that offer some explanation. The first is when Travis loses the ability to walk while he’s preparing to move across the country to LA. He consults a doctor about it for a more serious diagnosis than what his friend, Connor, told him (“Your body is shutting down, preventing you from moving.… It’s symbolic”), but the doctor simply tells Travis that his legs don’t want him to leave. In the second example, Kim wakes Travis up in the middle of the night to tell him that the government has shut down (a nod to the real life thing) and that they can co-murder their annoying neighbor who lives in the room above them. In these examples, the logic of the world is made useless by the failures of people or concepts commonly associated with authority: a doctor and the government. This deconstruction of order is a subtle touch, but it warrants the strangeness and gives the sense that there’s no one Travis can turn to for guidance as he tries to sort out what life means in the LA area.
What this ongoing confusion does is provide a background where startling glimpses of human nature stand out in sharp contrast. I was struck by one such passage where Kim scoops out the insides of their neighbor above them, Garth (different from the neighbor she wanted to co-murder), by hollowing out the belly of a dollhouse voodoo figurine. As she and Travis consequently rush him to the hospital to save his life, Garth apologizes for having punched Travis in the nose a few days ago. Travis accepts the apology and realizes aloud that it makes them even. This harkens to the rule of revenge: getting even is rarely inflicting the same harm received; rather, it’s returning that harm, plus interest.
I particularly liked Travis and Kim’s interactions throughout the story. Where Travis lacks direction and the willingness to do almost anything, his sister Kim is viciously energetic and holds multiple jobs. It reminded me a lot of Scott Pilgrim’s relationship with his sister, Stacy, in the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Like Stacy, Kim has the answers and frequently bails her comparatively weak and incompetent brother out of his problems.
If you have a busy schedule, Tacky Goblin is another great book that fits neatly into the cracks due its format. It started out as a humble series of blog posts that loosely mirrored the author’s real life circumstances (fictionalized just a little, of course). As a result, the chapters of the book are like diary entries ranging in length from as short as a quarter of a page, to four pages long—all of them bite-sized. The book in its entirety can be finished in two or three patient sittings, so it’s easy to break open in a spare moment, read a tiny chapter, and try to solve what you just fed your mind as you return to your obligations.
Because the chapters are so small, descriptions are brief and straightforward, but what’s remarkable is that they are usually woven into the dialogue rather than written out as exposition. For example, when Kim hands Travis his welcome-to-the-apartment skull, Travis asks her about its authenticity:
“Um. Is this a real human skull?” “Don’t be stupid. It’s plastic or something.” “I don’t think so. That’s a real gold filling. Where did you buy this?” “I didn’t buy it so much as find it in the water heater closet. In a box. A locked box. A very locked box. It was a bitch cutting off all the barbed wire and smashing it open.”
By describing the setting and objects through dialogue, the pacing of the scene remains fluid while we learn more about the bizarre world Travis attempts to reconcile with himself. And despite how often Steele shows description this way, it never feels contrived.
It’s not often I come across a book I enjoy so much, one that I was quick to reread and explore for its unconventional approaches to character and description. Tacky Goblin defies genre and leaves me feeling creatively refreshed, even if I end up more confused than when I started reading it. It’s weird, and I love it.