They All Die at the End by Peter Tarnofsky
I have to confess that it took me only the first line of the first story to decide I was going to review it.
I’m generally not a fan of banana skin jokes (or indeed bananas) but the first story in this collection begins thus‘It was the banana that got him in the end.’ For some reason I found this utterly compelling. And seriously funny. I thought a writer would be going some to keep me laughing from this high start point. But this opening certainly set the tone for the whole collection. Tarnofsky is effortless in his humour throughout and his unique angle on the short story – where we ‘know’ the ending of each story- is very clever and does not in any way detract from the stories he tells.
Tarnofsky justifies his title with a personal comment which explains what is to come. Yes, we know they all die at the end, but it’s how we get to that point which is important. The ending is not what a story is about. Tarnofsky’s collection is thus an important comment on narrative itself and one that makes you think more carefully about narrative as a whole. It also acts as an introduction to the ‘character’ behind all the characters. In his off-hand, self-effacingly humorous way, Tarnofsky builds a relationship between writer and reader before he even begins the stories and this is clever. It made me aware of a unified narrative ‘voice’ behind all the specific stories. I knew someone was in control of all this anarchy. The writer ‘God’ of this chaotic world was paying attention and was cleverly teaching a valuable lesson.
With titles as diverse as: Yellow Banana Smile, Shopping Basket Crown, Ukulele Cradle King, No Second Swing, Rogue Santa, Noctural Crème Bulee, Head Stand Ascension, High Thumb Cuticle, Soft Shoe Kick and Two Sole Certainties; one never knows what one is going to experience next, but the wit and humour provide a through line which holds the attention.
In some stories the central character seems more obvious and the point of view and narrative voice shift around between stories, which provides a nice variety, keeps the ‘joke’ fresh and prevents any ‘samieness’ from setting in. I’m impressed that the author found ten very different ways (from the sublime to the ridiculous) to kill off his characters but I was also became clearly aware that the stories are about much more than the endings and this is a valuable lesson to the reader (and aspiring writers). Don’t rush to the end point, savour the journey. I’m not going to go into detail about any specific story because I don’t want to spoil the experience for the reader. I can’t pick out a favourite. I can tell you there are no turkey’s.. each story is self contained while connected to and serving the aims of the whole and I for one was sorry when the final death occurred.
Tarnofsky dovetails several of the stories together (in a fashion similar to John Altman’s film Short Cuts) which adds depth and interest for the reader as well as reminding us that one person’s ‘moment’ can affect other people’s stories in a way they never know about. This realisation heightens the reader’s awareness of the journey that each story takes. We don’t care about the ‘ending’ as such because it’s simply a point in the story. We want to know the WHOLE story and that is encapsulated within each narrative. The ten stories in this collection are funny but the humour is not in the punchline. They are also thought provoking, sad and well observed. The ‘worlds’ Tarnofsky creates for his characters are interesting and realistic and there is plenty of variety.
I can’t pick a ‘favourite’ because I found the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts but each ‘part’ was played out. From the opening line of Yellow Banana Smile to the last story Two Sole Certainties (where the author seems to be implicated in the narrative) Tarnofsky takes you on a journey, on many journeys and I loved every step of the way.
Peter has a companion volume out titled 'Everything Turns out Just Fine' Watch out for my review of it... soon.