Tugging heartstrings is an art that Tony Rauch has greatly mastered. In his fourth collection of short stories to be released later this month, Rauch manages to seamlessly combine heartbreak and absurdity in “What If I Got Down on My Knees?” While his prior collections — “I’m Right Here,” “Laredo,” “Eyeballs Growing All over Me… Again” — were geared more toward an adult audience, this collection follows the experimentation, existential crises and fear of oblivion experienced by young adults seeking their life purpose. Rauch explores the absurdity of everyday life in a maze of hilarious, infuriating and downright preposterous romantic adventures.
An architect living in Minneapolis, Tony Rauch applies his fascination with art to both his work and his writing. Reminiscent of the absurdist fiction, his atypical short stories display much more about our reality than we may care to see. Like a modernist painting, the truth is only revealed through the irrational and fantastical. As explained by Rauch, “Many of the stories deal with loss or change, some are about escape — that is, seeing or trying to move beyond your present limitations. Some of the stories are just absurd situations, some with people not realizing they are longing for something.”
While varying in time and topic, most short stories follow the themes of regret and oblivion. In “When Jesus Played Football,” the protagonist explores the universal question: What is the point of it all? As college students, we often wonder how much we should sacrifice for a successful career. Do fame and money make up for the relationships we must forgo? Does our career define our emotional and intellectual capability? Are we currently living our golden years? Will our future be marred by failed attempts of recreating our reckless youth? What if we had asked out our high school sweetheart? The self-doubt faced by this football player is one with which all college students can relate. Such gripping existential crises of time and the crippling “what ifs” manifest themselves throughout Rauch’s collection. While some short stories find peace with the ephemeral nature of “all of us connected, entangled even, in this strange time that never ends,” others leave the reader desperate: “That’s all I want. Just a little while longer.”
Such gut-wrenching statements lead the reader into deep introspection, while others will leave one baffled and irritated. His short story “Congratulations” was simply infuriating. The protagonist is sitting on a bus when a man comes up to him, stating he could deliver the baby he did not know he had. Somehow, the protagonist has a baby girl by the end of the short story while he was never pregnant in the first place. No amount of psychoanalysis seemed to provide any clarity or purpose for this odd segment. Was this a statement about the irrationality of the human existence? According to the author, “That is meant to be absurd, an example of life handing you something unexpected — about hidden possibilities and seeing beyond your present limitations. Why do we have to wait for some things? To what extent can we shape our own lives?” This absurd short story can certainly act as an invitation to question one’s outlook, but the large volume of such hair-ripping questions creates a sense of confusion that makes the rational seem all the more uncertain.
Although highly entertaining and reflective, the absurd element of “What If I Got Down on My Knees?” often gets in the way of the enlightening introspection created by some of the short stories. In this fourth book, Tony Rauch furthers his identity as a bizarro writer, never giving any clues for the emotional experience to expect in each story. Because of this, the whirlwind of topics from college sweethearts to bestiality can often cause whiplash for the reader. While some readers welcome such a challenge, others will be left exasperated by the lack of continuity and linearity in these short stories.
For those open to having their heartstrings tangled and tugged repeatedly, this book can become a classic on their bookshelf. Rauch elaborates on the purpose of these shorts: “I would like readers to be entertained, to think, to go to places they had not thought about, to get their minds out of complacency, to take them on adventures they could not otherwise experience, to re-establish the notion that there are interesting things and possibilities all around, some hidden, some in plain view.”
For those readers courageous enough to take that leap, it may help them face their demons and change their lives for the better. In that case, the short nature of each vignette allows the reader to experience a variety of emotions and possibilities for the future. Who knows, reading Rauch’s “What If I Got Down on My Knees?” may lead some to face their demons head on. Why not ask out your high school crush after all?
As for his future plans, Rauch has several other story collections ready but is still searching for a suitable publisher for them. Samples can be found on his website: tonyrauch.wordpress.com