Baum Plan for Financial Independence: And Other Stories
by John Kessel
Review by Colleen Cahill
Small Beer Press Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781931520508
Date: April 2008 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
There are times when you want to read a soothing, comforting work. And there are times when you want to be taken, shaken and have your brain turned around. A perfect author for the latter times is John Kessel and his new collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories is just the ticket for this mind rush.
The title story, "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence", is a great example of Kessel's dark and daring work, and any Oz fan will quickly recognize Dot as Dorothy Gale, even when she also has "bright red lipstick and breath smelling of cigarettes". This is not the innocent Dorothy of Baum's book, more of a petty criminal, but she and her boyfriend Sid find a land of wonder back of a closet in an North Carolina mountain house. Never does this story go where you expect, as is true for all fourteen pieces in this collection. In "Powerless", we find a tale of a man who is "working on perfecting the Foucault engine", but this is more about greed and ego then about science. Indeed, all Kessel's stories are about people living, struggling, and often failing. "The Invisible Empire" follows a woman who has joined the "sisters of fury", a secret organization of women who try to fight domestic violence with bloody revenge. An even darker story is "Every Angel is Terrifying", where we see murder through the eyes of the mad man, a disturbing tale that never the less is compelling. While the topics are wildly variant, all these tales have do have one thing in common; all have very unique and have unexpected endings.
This is not to say the author does not have a sense of humor or play. "The Red Phone" made me chuckle as I watched the go-betweens in a sex phone call who become bored with the unimaginative dialog and begin their own more creative conversation. There is a tenderness in surreal "Downtown", as a man seeking weekend diversion finds there might be something better closer by. Most marvelous is the way Kessel brings disparate things together, as in my favorite story in the collection, "Pride and Prometheus". Who else would think to join Jane Austin with Mary Shelley? The tale focuses on a spinster Mary Bennett, who meets a melancholy Victor Frankenstein at a ball in London. It is amazing how well Kessel is able to capture the feel of both books and meld them into a new work.
There are many descriptive terms that can be used for this set of works: intense, dramatic, enthralling, disquieting. Never, never would one say these were cozy, dull, or predictable. While you might not what to snuggle up to these stories, they are ones that will captivate and have you thinking about them long after you have finished the book. I highly recommend The Baum Plan for Financial Independence to readers who are ready to experience something beyond the average.