From their exalted seats in the front of the car, Mom and Dad glare at me in a way that reminds me I’m one of those kids. Oversensitive. Scared of what shouldn’t cause scare: grasshoppers, Spanish moss, clover honey. Dad likes to say my microphone’s turned up too high — I’m picking up signals that aren’t even there. He’s been talking like this ever since he won his settlement against Norah Jones for allegedly stealing his lyrics.
It’s a story that says: Ok, all you moral relativists, how about THIS? Thing is, true moral relativists probably wouldn’t turn a hair over it. But it makes the rest of us kinda squirm.
What saves it is the tone, the voice, the narrator. It’s all done with such a sense of jocularity, it’s hard not to smile, even at the parts that should require a trigger warning (oh, and consider this your trigger warning). Our narrator is the soon-to-be-fourteen-year-old introduced in the quote above. But instead of seeing him as too sensitive, the typical reader will most likely see him as the only normal one in the bunch.
It’s time to stop beating around the bush (groan) and get to the point: in this alternative present, it’s customary for a boy, on his fourteenth birthday, to receive a ritualized hand job from his aunt.
“Dude,” Dad says, “we’ve been over this.” He uses a red light to give me a you’ve-made-me-take-my-eyes-off-the-road-look. “It’s only a hand job. It’s not like you have to sleep in Aunt Elyse’s bed. It’s not like you have to take her to dinner at Cracker Barrel and buy her a bag of fucking jelly beans from the gift shop.”
….”Why only the boys?” I ask Dad. “You going to let Unc Carl finger Megon when she turns fourteen next year? Have you thought about that?”
“Enough, you little perv,” Dad says. “We didn’t make the rules.”<br. How am I the only one who finds the rules insane? Boys get one mandatory hand job from a maternal aunt to make sure their plumbing doesn’t get backed up. Otherwise, they’ll supposedly turn into violent, horny little maniacs.
I hate to interrupt the fun – and it is fun, every time I read a section again, I find a new pun – but it’s also interesting to take a more anthropological view of things. The celebration of male potency, the shielding of female sexuality. The family involvement and ritualization prevents anything close to intimacy, sexual or otherwise (in his author interview with Idaho Review, Rupert points out “the event is so heavily codified that it’s utterly joyless”). The designation of an aunt, rather than a mother, distances the event from the nuclear family, keeping the home safe from the incestuous associations. And, on the story level, as I’ve already said, the humor (especially the eccentric theatricality of the aunt) gives us room to read it in the first place. If this was written in more somber tones – more along the lines of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “The Era” which also had a teenager questioning society’s norms – it would be a lot harder to read. Humor defuses what we deem dangerous.
But there’s also the rest of the story, which expands it from a one-trick pony (groan) novelty story to a metaphoric examination of the sexual ritual via a safer, if even more disgusting, custom: Hot Hot Horsies at the Hard Rock Café. No, it’s not a band. It’s dinner.
They are part of a new and controversial line of appetizers designed using so much genetic modification but Dad has to sign a waiver.
….They’re penned in a kind of wire basket, whinnying in terror. Our mohawked waiter pops open the little wire door and out they step. They are served raw, their heaving flanks crusty with dry rub. According to the waiter, their bones are mostly cartilage. Say what you will about Hard Rock, but their appetizers are unforgettable.
“They should have thrown these guys back,” Dad says. “They’re supposed to be rat-sized. These are hardly in the mouse range.”
It isn’t just sexual assault on children (as we see it) that’s part of the culture in this world; it’s a kind of violence that runs from Auntie insisting Unc perform feats that break his legs, to sister Megon keeping a vicious fighting lizard, to the consumption of live animals. Because “served raw” is a euphemism.
The story line takes mercy on us via a case of appendicitis, and brings us to a surprisingly tender moment of seeing things through another’s eyes, but then leaves us with a final image that, if it weren’t presented with humor, would give us nightmares. “I find that there’s often a fair amount of slippage between humor and horror,” says Rupert in his author interview. I think he’s found a pretty good way to mine that slippage.
In fact, the more I read this story, the more impressed I am. Or maybe I’m just trying to justify my enjoyment of it, given how truly horrific the reality it reveals is. And again, I return to the author’s own words: “It seems to me that one of fiction’s duties is to help remind readers that the reality they inhabit is already unthinkably strange.” I have to agree. The absurdities of our reality’s recent years didn’t come out of nowhere, after all.
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Rupert’s Author Interview is available online at Idaho Review.
His first story collection, Bosses of Light and Sound (including this story), was released in January 2021.