The Three Little Pigs and a Big Bad Wolf: On Gabriel Hart’s “Fallout From Our Asphalt Hell”

October 29, 2021

When my parents read me “The Three Little Pigs,” I was suitably impressed by the story — terrified of the wolf, fearful for the safety of little pigs. But more than the story, I was really impressed by the storyteller. Who was this invisible, omnipotent entity who could make appear whatever creatures came into its mind — pigs who lived in houses that they built themselves! a wolf whose method of attack was blowing! — and make these creations wiggle and dance closer and closer to a hallucinatory damnation?

At some point, I learned that “The Three Little Pigs” and its ilk were called fables and each had a lesson to teach. Although I suppose that under pressure of intense questioning, I could have identified the moral of most of these fables, I was there for the power of that invisible thing that made wolves blow and pigs cower in their inadequate housing.

In his new story collection, Fallout From Our Asphalt Hell (Close to the Bone Press, 2021), Gabriel Hart is a teller of fables. (He’s not a fabulist, but I’ll let someone else write that essay.) Or, to take a New Criticism approach, he has created a narrator, putatively invisible, usually omniscient, that not only has the power to make any damn thing happen, but wantonly and flamboyantly uses that power to make things happen that are not just damn things, but damned things. A gentleman named Mr. Schick gets a taste of an old-school razor. A glam-punk band eats Fruit Loops, accidentally kills a club owner, and shows up to the gig anyway. A Jack Russell terrier joins a pack of otherworldly super-wolves. An unknown company develops a drug that delivers the greatest high ever, but coming down entails sawing off limbs that are replaced with robot parts.

Were we to discuss Gabriel Hart’s stories on the TV show Top Chef, we would refer to them as “plot forward.” Like “The Three Little Pigs,” each has a sharp hook (a meat hook on which to its characters hang while Hart/Rocky delivers left hooks to the body), clear as the finest entries in Manhunt, Black Mask, Weird Tales, and Argosy, whose editors I can see begging from their graves to publish the stories in Hart’s collection.

Then there are the pigs. The pigs not as creations to be hung on plot hooks, but as living, breathing beings through which we experience the world, the emotional and sensory nuances of a pig whose life balances on a precipice between self-satisfaction and existential terror. As E.M. Forster explained so carefully in his classic Aspects of the Novel (I’m paraphrasing here), “That shit takes time.” And Hart is too busy grabbing every weird idea flying around his head and nailing it down to the page to let the characters have their way with these stories.

What emerges, then, as the stiches that hold together these wounds, are Hart himself and his worldview as expressed in these stories. As in the work of Hart’s literary progenitors Donald Goines, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and Chester Himes, more than any character or plot, what stands tall is the author himself, his deep conviction of the world as perpetually, amusedly, and fiercely apocalyptical.

When I think of Hart and his literary antecedents, I think of works too nasty to have been published. Like Willeford’s Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, only available in the most distant dead ends of the internet, in which the gruff but lovable male hero kills his two troublesome daughters. (In the published version, the daughters are shipped off to their mother, later return, and all live happily, at least for a time.) Like Himes’s unfinished last novel, Plan B (published almost a decade after the author’s death by the University of Mississippi Press and long out of print), in which Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, having held racial tensions in Harlem in deeply pessimistic and comically absurd check for eight novels, choose up sides in, and die during, an apocalyptic racial revolution. (My copy of Plan B having been lost years ago, I paid $106 for a used one as research for this review.)

More than plot, more than character, Gabriel Hart’s careening, comic, catastrophic worldview is the star, the point of engagement in Fallout From Our Asphalt Hell. And ultimately it’s Hart himself who rises above the work. Read his bio. He is nothing less than the rampantly omnipotent, delightfully maniacal, and no-longer invisible entity that makes wolves blow and pigs cower.

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Robert Fromberg is author of How to Walk with Steve (Latah Books, 2021), a memoir of autism, art, death, and punk rock. His prose has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Indiana Review, Colorado Review, and many other journals. He taught writing at Northwestern University for 17 years.