about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, forthcoming 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Our Island of Epidemics
A Review of Our Island of Epidemics
by Matthew Salesses

Spencer Dew

The connected stories of this alluring little collection are, as the title indicates, about an island plagued—or gifted—with epidemics. An epidemic of unrequited love sweeps across the land like a wild fire. An epidemic of ganglion cysts leads to an obsession with thumping wrists and ankles under books—“It got addictive, the feeling of sharp pain and then adrenaline, fluid running off under skin.”—and an epidemic of short-term memory loss forces the citizens of the island to keep notes and send for medical experts from the outside world; “yet as we waited for the outside world’s doctors we got sad immigrants instead. They came, after a bout of suffering, to catch the disease and stay.”

The dreamy weave of these small stories, in accumulation, builds a fantastic counter-reality where illness really is a gift, often magical, but predicated foremost on the notion of human community. “We had an epidemic of fainting,” Salesses writes, “and we got used to carrying each other home, waking to find ourselves cradled in another’s arms.” Not all of the inflictions have a positive spin, but even though those darker conditions, the island is an island united; “There were epidemics in our history that got buried—like the epidemic of impotence and the epidemic of kidnapping—but at least we knew we suffered together. We knew we were ill.”

The worst thing that can happen in this place is immunity, and when that comes, coupled with a kind of prophecy and a rejection of this weird and wonderful world, the real drama of this book presents itself. There are idols, too, built to be loved in lieu of humans, and acts arson, and sweet lies, and an animal god who gnaws human thighs, like a character from the dark and bloody fairy tales of old Europe. In the end, however, these little tales speak to the strokes of luck and circumstance that shape our destinies, adopting an unlikely idiom to offer a new valence on our own ill or healthy lives: “Our island liked to give and liked to take away, we thought. The epidemics were how our island did this.”

Official Matthew Salesses Web Site
Official PANK Little Books Web Site

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