Cowboy Maloney's Electric City

By Michael Bible

Dark Sky Press
April 2011
86 pages


Reviewed by M Thompson


Though brand new, Michael Bible's Cowboy Maloney's Electric City already looks as if it has been passed off and lent out to twenty different people, stacked beneath a second, slightly smaller book and left for decades on a windowsill somewhere in Oxford, Mississippi. I imagine it could go easily in a back pocket; the way Barry Hannah's books go easily in back pockets. I can imagine Cowboy Maloney being read and read again by Harry Munroe, the perpetually restless antihero of Geronimo Rex.

Bible's writing has the same overheated delirium found in Hannah's best work. Yet while Hannah seemed content to let his yarns unfurl across the floor, Bible has taken the opposite approach. Each page in Cowboy Maloney contains no more than a paragraph of story, word count at its highest, somewhere around seventy-five, at its lowest, below twenty.

Still, this is something more than an exercise in flash fiction. Bible is a warm and patient writer, his prose is slow and deliberate, inebriated, moseying. Details bob up and sink back below the surface, reemerging pages later in a different form. Josh Burwell's wobbly illustrations only serve to sedate the narrative further. Despite its twitchy appearance, Cowboy Maloney has its feet up on the banister and is in no rush to go anywhere, reading less like lit ladyfingers and more as a long and unfolding, slow to summon daydream.

Maloney's daydream, to be precise, and what a daydream it is. There is his good friend Charlie West, a folkie high school janitor with "Quiet Riot hair" who plays jazz piano and sometimes brings Maloney pornography. There is Maloney's high school teacher, the alluring Mrs. Kelly, and her actressy daughter, Kelly Kelly, who yearns for Maloney in that adolescent way that means both nothing and everything absolutely: "Let's make love in the pool house, she says, I'm completely depressed." Music plays gently across each page. Maloney strums his guitar, sings high lonesome hymns from Hank Williams and Roy Orbison as Bach drifts over the hills in this lovely and unexpected way that makes the whole book feel timeless and allegorical. "In my mind there is only pure music," says Maloney, wistfully.

Such a line implies a serene mental state. It also suggests a significant disconnect with the outside world.  And indeed, life is far from harmonious in the electric city. Scenes of loss and frustration, death and confusion, disrupt the book's tranquil disposition the way static interference can break up a beautiful song on the radio. A dentist named Commodore, destroyed by love, slowly slips into oblivion by drugging himself with his own laughing gas. Washed up Charlie West plunks at a disused piano in his back yard and thinks sadly upon the old days. "I was great once, he says, now I'm just a filthy old man with tears in my eyes." The ghostly and distant figure of Princess Hypochondria casts long shadows with her death-rattled premonitions. "I am dying, she says, I have every disease." Maloney, meanwhile, stumbles backwards and forwards between Mrs. Kelly and Kelly Kelly in a confused love triangle that, with each twist, seems to further unravel his already tenuous identity.

Just who is Maloney, anyway? That question becomes increasingly difficult to answer. There is the gun-wielding, high plains mystic Maloney of the novel's title, perched atop a horse named Forever. There is also the frail and unsure, decidedly adolescent Maloney, lusting after Mrs. Kelly as he awkwardly courts her daughter. Birwell's own renderings seem to offer someone else altogether – a gonzo honky-tonk Maloney in garish lightning bolt cowboy costume, a worn out and lost boy Maloney with a too-big Stetson pulled around his ears, hunched over and seeming more stranded upon his horse than riding it into the sunset.

The more the story progresses the more it fragments and doubles back onto itself. Overlapping personas can be found in the washed out lovesick dentist Commodore and the washed up life-sick janitor Charlie West, in the make believe twin Maloney chases down through an abandoned hospital, in the love triangle between Mrs. Kelly and Kelly Kelly, in the name Kelly Kelly itself and in Maloney's own startling soliloquies:

I think of my father, an old man when I knew him. He and I are the same person with the same memories. My mother is his mother and so on. I think of how he sailed the South China Sea. I am there with him. I wear his gunner hat and he wears my spurs. I am also my grandfather, a navigator on a huge steel bird in the second big war. And I am his grandfather, a coward Confederate submariner shot for desertion while trying to swim home. 

All of these versions are presented as true, and all in some way cancel the others out. Here then is the key to how Bible takes an eighty-page novella and stretches it onward and outward into something far bigger. Cowboy Maloney is a book of multiples constantly multiplying, of variegated personalities that split and converge, each one independent yet also interconnected, looped in and out of the other to make this beautiful and tangled, near-unending knot.

In many ways, a linear narrative is beside the point here. What makes Cowboy Maloney's Electric City such an immensely enjoyable read is uncovering the connections between its fantastic digressions, its beautiful u-turns. Bible leaves so much room to stretch out and stroll around in his words. As a reader, I am thankful for that.