(Book Review) The Book of Duels by Michael Garriga

The Book of Duels by Michael Garriga / Milkweed / 2014 / ISBN: 9781571310934

Code Duello; or, How an Author Teaches You to Die, Rise, and be Born Again

He greets you with a sly smile and a twinkle of the eyes that suggests mischief, leans into you like a conspirator while shuffling you toward a scarlet cooler in the middle of the room, and whispers, “Grab a beer. They’re free for the taking.” It’s the last hour of the Oxford Conference for the Book, and we’re pressed into a cramped bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi with a gaggle of suit-and-tie types, presumably all great lovers of literature. The place reeks of damp paper, but judging the crowd, you’re unsure if it’s from old books or old money. You grab a beer, and so it goes: a night of marathon storytelling that only ceases when the sun finally dissipates the whiskey and rum dew that has gathered heavily on your forehead in tiny globes of sweat.

It isn’t until later, chewing on microwaved bacon and cold scrambled eggs at a hotel breakfast based on continental cruelty – still laughing at the jokes, still reeling from the stories, still incredibly intoxicated – that you recall someone mentioning that your co-conspirator has just written a book. What quality of author doesn’t mention that he just wrote a book when attending a book conference, you ask yourself. You tuck the question away, determined to find the mysterious and potentially dubious work in order to peruse it as soon as you are able; and when you finally do, the answer comes to you with all the abrupt authority of Moses descending the Mount with a bouquet of god-kissed forget-me-nots: the good kind. He never mentioned it, but hell, you never asked him either.

* * *

The Book of Duels by Michael Garriga
The Book of Duels by Michael Garriga
The Book of Duels consists of 33 stories, each threaded together by a triptych of flash fiction monologues. While not all duels in the classic sense, most recreate the final moments of a pivotal confrontation between two individuals, while adding the additional viewpoint of a witness. It is a splendid mix of history, myth, fiction, and confession. Often channeling Beat lyricism and rhythms, Garriga’s stories are varied, but rich; ranging from famed duels such as Hamilton against Burr (“…I realize that we are a two-sided coin flipped by Fate and here I land facedown and forlorn and I forgive him everything.”), to drag races (“Damn my muddy shoes and my greasy nails and damn this day and this night as well and all this useless mean pride…”), until finally culminating with the author’s own dueling duality (“…your inherited birthright is a long tradition built by writers even more gifted than you, few though they may be…”).

Gloriously illustrated throughout by Tynan Kerr, the cover features two skeletal duelists toasting one another with flintlock pistols while resting their heads on their free hands – a perfect interpretation of the tensions that dominate The Book of Duels. However, purchasing this book merely on your taste in cover art is like stumbling blind out of a bar and straight into a waiting cab, only to discover that your driver is an amphetamine-fueled, teeth-grinding William Faulkner about to plunge you into a maddening tour of Yoknapatawpha County meth houses at 160 miles-per-hour. In the midst of feeling like a dope for choosing a book solely by its cover, congratulate yourself at least for being so incredibly fortuitous. After all, it’s great stories that we seek, and that is what The Book of Duels delivers.

Some reviewers have christened Garriga’s prose with the cryptic adjective “biblical”, a high compliment presumably for writers hailing from the Bible Belt. True enough perhaps, but the prose is only biblical in the sense that it contains all of the blood, sweat, and tears of our soul-searching, common human condition. There is no patriarchal tyranny to be found here; no righteousness outside of each character’s inner voice. This book isn’t some quaint stroll through the Sermon on the Mount in which you are gingerly invited to admire divinity from the safety of a church pew, nor is it like a Bishop in a glass cathedral screaming at you for two hours to consider the cost of a pound of flesh. Instead, this is Eve handing you a bruised, mangled fruit, the stain of its burgundy juice still wet on her lips as it drips seductively onto Gauguin breasts; this is you still reeling from circumcision, shocked from your hellish slumber with a knife at your throat, the sons of Jacob having come to deliver your just reward for the rape of their sister.

But perhaps you are like me, burned too many times by the heavily heralded praise of a trending author, only to discover that their work is yet another teenage diary about sparkly vampires lost in eternal puberty, or of a heroine who constantly refers to her vagina as “my sex” in a trilogy that reads like a S&M textbook haphazardly edited by the Southern Baptist Board of Education. So for those of you who are still unsure of what to expect, carefully weighing the price of a new book against that of a few gallons of gasoline, I leave you with a final analogy.

* * *

You’ve returned home for the first time in years, a wayward child, only to discover your mother’s new suitor, a man you have never met, sitting happily on the front porch in your father’s handmade rocking chair. He playfully shakes a tumbler of whiskey in one hand while stroking the fur of your beloved hunting dog with the other, its tan-white tail whacking a nervous cadence against the wood. “What took you so long,” he says. “Your mom’s made supper, and it’s finally something I like.” You reel, spin, your stomach flips, your head is a bone bucket of boiling blood, but – you steady yourself. You’ve read the Good Book. You pull The Book of Duels from your threadbare pocket, its sacred pages worn thin from prayer, and drop it at the scoundrel’s feet. He looks down, confused, and you quickly bury a concealed blade deep into his chest. The bastard dies before your mother’s honey biscuits have even cooled, and a smile as long and deep as the Mississippi creeps across your face. You retrieve the book with trembling hands, careful, lest it become stained with the infidel’s blood. You return it to your pocket, your heart pounding a primordial hymn. You walk through the door. You’re home.

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