REVIEW: Neighbors of Nothing by Jason Ockert
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Following up his superb debut collection, Rabbit Punches, Neighbors of Nothing explores Ockert’s unique take on isolation.
These ten stories are about exodus, migration, and the inability to find oneself in familiar and unfamiliar terrain.
But they are also about fathers and fatherhood: loss, estrangement, and its terrifying newness. The characters in Neighbors of Nothing struggle to make sense of their worlds, negotiating grief with rash, clumsy, and genuine decisions while attempting to manage the painstaking cruelty of time.
“Into The Dead” is about a man simulating reconciliation with his father for the sake and mercy of his kind stepmother. In “Jakob Loomis,” three men find themselves horrifically entwined in the wake of a child’s kidnapping. In “Still Life,” an art teacher rediscovers his passion after a bizarre locomotive accident. “Everyday Murders” tells of the lone survivor of a mass murder who tracks down an entrepreneur selling football jerseys portraying serial killers’ names. “Insectuality” is the story of a baker’s assistant attempting to woo an indecisive interpretive performer with strange markings on her arms. In “Max,” a boy struggles to grieve for his older brother during the annual hunt of thousands of local crows that the mother blames for her son’s death. In “Minute Minute” a man seeks to console a grieving citizen while simultaneously honoring his best friend who committed suicide. “Piebald” is the story of a father trying to make sense of his child’s untimely death while battling a bizarre rash, his wife’s sudden personification of their son, and rogue riflemen in his funeral taps troupe. In “Sailor Man,” a son fumbles through parenthood while dodging the shadow and influence of his own dead begrudged father. “Echo,” a perfectly crafted and moving 2nd POV, offers the daily routine of a man coping with Alzheimer’s and its significant and unforgiving symptoms on the heart as much as the mind.
Those familiar with Ockert’s voice will delight in his sentence execution and lyricism. Lines like this, from “Into The Dead,” are found throughout the book and are as sincere and beautiful as any Barry Hannah sentence: “There are kinds of kindness better suited for people different than my father and me. My father’s wife should squeegee the bigness of her swollen heart into the mouths of the needy, neglected children, maybe veterans of foreign wars.”
The South roars up feral and unforgivable here, the density of landscape compliments the emotional, physical, spiritual and psychological topographies
the characters find themselves surrounded by. Floral and faunal dividers complicate the already complicated lives, and at times the characters of Neighbors of Nothing must struggle to find their way out of both. A perfect example would be from the story, “Sailor Man”:
“I can see the Subaru over the rise — the exhaust is making weather of its own there in the wake of itself — tire tracks fading in the too-deep-to-drive-through snow — there’s always the possibility that once I’ve driven in I cannot drive out; no matter, I can shove at the immovable all day, it’s a thing I’m good at, leaning in and pushing with everything I’ve got.”
And another, from “Still Life”: “Trains were gritty and loud and indifferent. Folks born along the railroad understood this. Inside the house, you got used to the dishes clamoring, drowned-out Days of Our Lives, shadows racing across the living room wall, hearts still clutching and pumping in time with the machines long after they had passed. Nobody slept deeply, and just when your dreams started getting good, Amtrak rumbled by to remind you where you were.”
Neighbors of Nothing teaches us about the complexity of consequence with deeply carved plot-structures that fold back on themselves
so that we feel their weight while witnessing the — sometimes brave, other times reckless — characters’ decisions. In each story, Ockert conveys the heaviness of life, of choice, beyond the text. Skirting the hems of these stories lie other tragedies, simmering tensions, and impending catastrophe. Traumas haunt, loom, and enkindle. As “Everyday Murders” suggests: “There are accidents and then there are conflagrations of the human heart. Reasons are drifting embers in a stiff wind. One of them turned the house to ashes.”
In the same story, we are given an important axiom, one that works well as a summation of the book’s themes: “But you are no role model when nobody sees you. You are inconsequential. Drop in a bucket.”
Although Ockert’s characters might not have the best acumen at times, it is clear that the author himself indeed does. Neighbors of Nothing thrills from start to finish.
by Jason Ockert