The title story of Todd Grimson's new collection, Stabs at Happiness (Schaffner Press, 216 pages, $24.95), is made almost literal: It recounts an art-punk lesbian—Wavves' "Surf Goths" on the earbuds—strapping on a dildo to peg a vacantly compliant emo boy she'd met in a chatroom. At the end of the story, she mixes up the details, accidentally remembering more intimacy than was real when describing the encounter to an older wheelchair-bound blogger with multiple sclerosis.
This fictional confidant is a surrogate for the author. Portland's Grimson has been mostly housebound since a 1991 MS relapse, and spends his days writing novels and reading about a book a day. In the '90s, he wrote intense, savage, fever-dream vampire books that made fans of James Ellroy, Katherine Dunn and the Oulipian experimental writer Harry Mathews.
Grimson's short fiction, though, is something else altogether. He'd originally written the fiction under a pen name, Innocente Fontana, to separate those stories from the vampire fiction he'd created as Todd Grimson. In their best moments, Grimson's stories bear traces of Kafka and of Brian Evenson's detached religious brutalism, the uncanny narrative syllogisms of Borges or Barthelme. "Batista's Lieutenant" is a kaleidoscope of petty violence and deadpan comic self-interest centered on a Cuban Revolution whose sides seem arbitrary, war a mere distraction from private ambitions and slights. "What the Matter Is" details a fictional trip by 1930s movie star Jean Harlow to San Francisco, in which she tries to become her own reputation: making of herself a counterfeit Harlow as tawdry as the sex symbol she's been made out to be.
"Nothing in Tangier" is dominated, on the other hand, less by sex and violence than the glint of suspicion in bright sun. The tale of a North African disappearance is obsessed with unknowability and the existential other, and thus also haunted by the ghost of writer Paul Bowles, who was Grimson's mentor—once upon a time—in Morocco.
But while Grimson's fiction thrives on the alien and the uncanny, it falters when close to home. "Wrong," a story of skuzzy old-Portland drunks and hookers with a prominent scene featuring the original Hung Far Low, is an overfamiliar aggregation of local-noir bar stories not quite redeemed by the story's lingering final image. But the familiar is rare in Stabs, and the stories' occasional missteps and overexplanations are less prominent than their rewarding moments of grim wonderment. Grimson has created his own dingy vernacular of the strange and estranged, a world awash in the dazed impossibility of things as they are.
READ: For more information about Todd Grimson, visit toddgrimson.com.