Let Them Eat Rubbish

Kevin Bartelme’s stories help us reclaim our humanity and sense of humor during
strange and perilous times.

Pub Date: NOV 1st ’20 • ISBN: 978-1-887276-80-1 • $ 19.95

Jonah Raskin reviews Let them eat rubbish

 KEVIN BARTELME brings classic humor to New York… Reviewed in the United States on May 14, 2021

“Humorists are often moralists and moralists are often humorists. The fiction writer, Kevin Bartelme, who is published by Cool Grove, is no exception, though he is not a sermonizer. A New Yorker and the author of five comedic New York novels, including O’Rourke, which tells the story of an eccentric tile setter who spends much of his life in bathrooms and kitchens, and likes to quote FDR and Charles Manson. In the 17 short stories that are collected in Let Them Eat Rubbish the author has a light touch. In the first story, “Aging Gracefully, or Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,” the main character disappears into the world of television, never to be seen or heard from again. In the second story, “Dullsville,” an earthquake shakes up the staid citizens who inhabit a staid town. In story after story Bartelme mixes satire, the surreal and the absurd, as in the story in which a man goes into a bar for a drink and emerges with a piece of the bar fixed to his own body. In Bartelme’s world ordinary people are caught up in extraordinary events and extraordinary events disrupt ordinary lives. Bartelme does not seem to be intimidated by the arbiters of so-called good taste and the media pundits who try to police speech and thought. The cover of Let Them Eat Rubbish depicts Marie Antoinette with what looks like a fake nose and fake lips. In the note about the author at the back of the book, Bartelme is described as “an admirer of Proust” who has spent years “fasting and meditating.” The copy on the back of the book links him to the masters of the short story: O. Henry, O’Hara and Guy De Maupassant. In the spirit of O. Henry his endings are surprising, and in spirit of De Maupassant they often explore the psyche of the strange and the obsessed like the man who seeks sex in the fog. Many of the names of the characters are comically, like Coriolanus Cheezowitz, Poopbutt McGillicuddy and Olivia Loaf. If someone of the humor seems adolescent it’s worth remembering that one doesn’t have to be young to be an adolescent or see the world as mad, mad, mad. Perhaps the most overtly political story, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” mentions a certain Donald Trump who shouts obscenities. In the last sentence of that story the narrator insists, that he’s “damned proud to be an American.” You don’t have to read the stories in the order in which they appear in the book. Jump around, or start at the beginning and go to the end. Let Them Eat Rubbish invites audience participation, but no canned laughter, please. Perhaps that’s why the book is dedicated to “everyone who bought this book.” So go online buy one of your own and discover a world of strange and wonderful New Yorkers rarely glimpsed in the pages of fiction.

Jonah Raskin, author of A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature, The Mythology of Imperialism and the forthcoming Beat Blues, San Francisco 1955

In these bizarre and difficult times, so many of our cherished dreams of liberty-fraternity-equality are being assaulted by hate and ignorance. Where can we turn for refreshment, solidarity and strength? Well, one such place is in the humor and language of comedic novelist Kevin Bartelme. Bartelme follows in the footsteps of so many writers who have found that comedy, not tragedy, is the more powerful artform.  Swift, Twain–even Shakespeare wrote comedies, and leavened his tragedies with a wild assortment of puns and put-downs.

The clarity of his writing, and its strong narrative flow, lets the reader experience his creativity in a way that wouldn’t be possible if his prose was as offbeat and unexpected as his imagination. His style, too, follows the classic structures and punctuation of “good English” so you always know exactly what he is saying—explicitly, at least. 

Not only does laughter make the world of ideas more vivid and accessible, but good comedy is a healer that can strengthen us for the hoped-for victory of light over darkness.  And so Bartelme does his part, offering contemporary stories to tickle our inner Aristophenes, helping us reclaim our humanity during the perilous and strange moment we’re living through.

— Robbie Saltaire, author of the forthcoming non-fiction novella… Margie in the Morning.

Author of five humorous novels, in his latest, LET THEM EAT RUBBISH, Kevin Bartelme turns to the form of the classic short story. The contrast between his wildly imaginative images, and the familiar structures of the literary short story—of De Maupassant, O. Henry, O’Hara—creates a crackling tension that ripples through the seventeen stories. 

Most of the stories take place in pre-pandemic, New York City—on its streets and in its bars, offices, apartments and shops.  Love, wealth, ambition, sex, drinking, old age and immortality are themes that writers have explored for four thousand years, and Bartelme joins them in his vivid, 21st-century way.

Rather than Odysseus struggling to free himself from the goddess Calypso, JOHN AND ELSA gives us a strangely convincing romance between a devil and an angel in a Manhattan club who have a hard time getting together, but find it even more difficult to break up.  In VALLEY OF THE DOLTS, the high-tech screen called Solipsist, which lets a Las Vegas hooker grow a new body part, is oddly reminiscent of the reflection that dazzled Narcissus.  And in PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST—and several other stories—the reader embarks on the same quest for immortality that captivated Gilgamesh.

In the Conscience of a Conservative he begins,

I have no conscience and I hope I never will. In my opinion, conscience is for rubes and turkeys who don’t understand the realities of the world we live in. They don’t understand the constant threat we are under…

In Dullsville he begins,

Dullsville does not have a specific geographic location. It follows you around like a pack of hound dogs on the trail of a fugitive. Just when you think you’ve made your escape, in the distance you hear the howling of real estate speculators,  ad guys, boutique owners, and other assorted vampires. Before you know it, they’re upon you, transforming what you thought was a safe haven into… Dullsville. After the good citizens of Dullsville have consumed and destroyed every last vestige of originality, creativity, and irony, they look at each other (dully, of course) and wonder what happened. But not for long. Soon they are on the move in search of further prey. They may be the people you don’t know and don’t want to know, but they will find you.

The biggest mistake I ever made was staying too long after the Dullsville invasion of my neighborhood began. At first, the few scouts of the dull blended in like the spies they were, but the few soon turned into many. I knew what was happening because it had happened to me before in another city but I stayed anyway. I still had a few friends scattered around the neighborhood, which made it endurable, but there were fewer of them every year and I knew the end was near. I knew I should pack up and join the exodus but I kept putting off my departure until it was too late. Dullsville had swallowed me up.

The only reason I stayed was my girlfriend, a woman with whom I never should have been involved. She was beautiful but very naïve and I harbored the delusion that I could educate her.