A Comedic Buffet of Old Whores and New Homes: The Short Stories of James Burr
When I finally brought myself to open the file on James Burr’s collection, I discovered that at least one of my fears was valid: I am an asshole.
I didn't know what to expect from James Barr's new short story collection, Nanny Knows Best, for no other reason than I hadn't ever heard of James Burr. After receiving a copy of his book from the folks at Hybrid Sequence Media, I had something of a crisis of conscience. Panic plagued me as I tried to imagine what I would say if I didn't like Burr’s work.
This was a book given to me by a friend, with the expectation that I would have something to say about it, good or bad. My mind puzzled over how I would make things right if I thought the contents of Nanny Knows Best were absolute shit. What artful combination of words could I employ to disguise my disappointment and disgust?
After deciding to sleep on the book (I am desperately in need of a better pillow), I awoke submerged in dread, still fearing the outcome of my inevitable read. I am always hesitant to consume the work of my peers, for fear that I will loathe that work and be pressed into action as a naysayer and obvious troll.
When I finally brought myself to open the file on James Burr’s collection, I discovered that at least one of my fears was valid: I am an asshole. Fortunately, I am not the asshole who is about to write a negative review. Instead, I am an asshole for questioning the worth of this remarkable compilation.
Nanny Knows Best is the finest short story collection I have read since Benjamin Weissman's Headless and twice as smart. This collection had me enthralled from the very first page of its prologue, a darkly comical vignette that deftly skewers the hospice arm of the health care industry with all of the cheeky inventiveness of vintage Vonnegut and the physical comedy of classic sitcoms. As I read it, I could easily picture the young John Cleese staggering around as the Nanny, attending to his unfortunate gurgling “Client.”
Not long ago, I posted an essay about my love of novelist Thomas Berger, in which I showcased his consummate use of language and his existential wit. These same skills are present and accounted for in each of Burr’s shorts, which seem to have been assembled in an order every bit as random and absurd as the universe we occupy.
Nanny Knows Best can best be described as a literary buffet, one that offers generous portions of something for everyone. If you've always wondered what it would be like to wake up in an M.C. Escher print or questioned where your literary interests might lie with old whores, then you will surely be tickled pink by this compendium of flash fiction.
I won't give up the ghost, as it were, but I will say this: no other line in recent memory has made me laugh quite as hard as “fists a blur.” The stories within these pages tickle the funny bone at a time when few things truly can. This isn't the hackneyed soft target humor of late-night talk show comedy but the humor of Orwell, Vonnegut, early Woody Allen (see: Without Feathers), and classic Steve Martin (see: Cruel Shoes).
Barr is a satirist of the first order, the type of cat who takes aim at everything in sight, from the laziness of our leisure-obsessed culture and the ineffectual nature of government employees to the ways in which we all delude ourselves in order to survive, and he does it all with a nonchalance befitting a seasoned showman.
Expect a cavalcade of perverts, losers, failed thinkers, fishy military experiments, and a “fuck-city” to rival anything in the carnal canon of de Sade. Expect role-playing taken to its obvious and not-so-obvious extremes. Expect to laugh your fool head off.
The delectable little morsels that you find in Nanny Knows Best might lack the length and girth of other stories, but they will certainly fill you up. If you don't feel sated after reading this, you may want to consider checking yourself into one of Burr’s Homes ™ for Doomed Clients.
Nanny Knows Best is available from Hybrid Sequence Media here. The Nanny Knows Best Pamphlet Edition is available from Godless here.
Bob Freville is the Godless bestselling author of The Proud and the Dumb and the urban crime thriller Battering the Stem. His grossout biker comedy, The Filthy Marauders, is available from The Evil Cookie Publishing and Godless.com. He exists in a state of anxiety in the State of New York.