REVIEW: The Mustache He’s Always Wanted But Could Never Grow by Brian Alan Ellis

Brian Alan Ellis is one of those rare authors who understands that, in order to be memorable, short fiction should achieve a delicate balance between being a full narrative and making the reader feel like what’s being presented is only the tip of a very large iceberg. In The Mustache He’s Always Wanted but Could Never Grow, Ellis offers 21 short tales that are as hilarious as they are heartbreaking and focus on a wide-ranging cast of characters whose lives and minds are stuck, literally and metaphorically, in the gutter.

The stories in The Mustache He’s Always Wanted but Could Never Grow are about losers, boozers, perverts, schemers, wrestlers, depressed individuals, and folks who are perennially caught on the bottom rung of society. For these individuals, happiness, upward social mobility or love are inaccessible things, and the way they deal with that, along with the fact that they offer us a mirror to look at our own inadequacies, is what makes them interesting. These chronic masturbators, fetishists, blue collar slaves, and people who have lost their cat or television are shown without comment or judgment and Ellis treats them with respect, never romanticizing or making fun of their shortcomings. Instead, the author invites readers to take an honest look at the diversity of humanity and its wide range of imperfections.

The beauty of Ellis’s work is that it possesses an economy of language that allows him to deliver satisfying narratives in very few words. Half of these 21 stories start with a paragraph that could very well be considered a great piece of microfiction. The opening lines of “Drinking in Bed With Zadie” are a great example:

“We are kamikaze lovers. We spend the night drinking red wine from the bottle, shoving pills down each other’s throat. We take turns vomiting into the toilet during our cloudy attempts at lovemaking. We are, if anything, a train wreck of suicidal passion. Something cliché.”

The Mustache He’s Always Wanted but Could Never Grow is packed with eccentricity, but it never crosses into bizarro territory because the situations presented are strange but plausible. Instead of weirdness for the sake of weirdness, the author opted for a balance between wretchedness and hilarity and for brutal honesty as the underlying element of cohesion that brings the collection together. The result of this equation is tales like “Leftover Heels,”in which a pair of shoes an ex-girlfriend leaves behind is used by a lonely man for sexual purposes; “Lunch Lady,” a very short piece in which a husband lashes out from the sofa in reaction to his wife’s new hair do; or “Jerry’s TV,” a narrative in which a man contemplates his neighbor’s suffering at having lost his television and not being able to watch his favorite show’s finale:

“It sounds insane, but I considered having Jerry over at my place. Then I remembered: I don’t have cable. Also, my TV is busted. All it does is sit there, reflecting the image of its sorry son-of-a-bitch owner who could never fix a damn thing.”

In this short collection, which comes in at a very manageable 120 pages, despair is almost something tangible, the ugliness is unrelenting, and profanity abounds. However, one only needs to scratch that surface to see that a profound love for humanity in all its forms beats at the core of the collection, and that Ellis is inviting readers to question their prejudices:

“I mean, I’d rather be loved than hated…but I’d rather be hated than ignored. Hate is vital. And so is love. And what’s the point of living life if you don’t complain about it…if you don’t question it?”

Not every story in The Mustache He’s Always Wanted but Could Never Grow is memorable, but those that are allow the unpleasantness of the world, the nasty things other authors try to conceal, to come to the surface and enjoy some time in the spotlight. This unapologetic celebration of everything lowbrow might sound unpleasant, but Ellis’s humorous and very frank approach make it a beautiful, enjoyable thing.

The Mustache He’s Always Wanted But Could Never Grow: And Other Stories

by Brian Alan Ellis

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