“A little masterpiece” – UnAmerican Activities by James Miller

‘The Goth girl starts whacking me with a baseball bat. ‘Stay still,’ she screams, ‘or I’ll hit you again!’ … I stay still and it occurs to me as I lie in my chains that the death I have eluded and avoided and waited for and wept over and postponed for so long is at last upon me. And I am so very, very frightened.’

uaajmQuestion: who wants to live forever? Answer: vampires, porn stars and God’s special children. Three unrelated constituencies, you would be forgiven for thinking, but actually… At the dawn of time, giants walked the earth – half man, half angel. But as the end-days approach, beasts will be unleashed to destroy their good work – and legions will bear the devil’s mark. And the daughters of Eve will be more comely than ever, and all men will succumb to these succubi…all except the chosen ones. Then in the final act the seventh trumpet will blow, shaking the dead from their graves whilst uplifting the righteous to heaven. Et voila – bloodsuckers, cocksuckers and the armies of God.

From this witches’ brew, James Miller serves up UnAmerican Activities – a set of loosely coupled short stories featuring a band of desperados: meth addicts, vampire hunters, survivalists and good girls gone bad (very, very bad). The collection has a Pulp Fiction vibe, reminiscent of the Tarantino classic in more than one way – each episode is self-contained, perfect in-and-of-itself, and yet trips into another. Also it is dark, and yet so, so funny – a parody of genre fiction, with classic tropes being distorted through a hall of mirrors. (The vampire in popular perception is either a tall and thin weirdo with a funny accent, or someone whose intellect, strength and gloss of youth make them almost unearthly. And yet in UnAmerican Activities, the vampire is a middle-aged slob who smokes crack with overweight prostitutes).

Whilst the sendup is brilliantly written and hilarious, something unexpected then happens – the jokes tail off with the situations becoming sober, more sinister. Miller’s ruse (if indeed it is calculated) works perfectly – make the reader comfortable, laughing at all the crazy people, and then slowly change the backdrop. Keep on shifting until the scenarios and characters are ambiguous, believable, even – to the extent that the joke may even be on ‘us’.

Any Cop?: UnAmerican Activities is more than a dark comedy. As delicious as the cast of characters are – the zombies, the gun-toting neo-Nazis and backwater hicks – it is way more than an assembly of genre-fiction staples. The prose is deft, delivering an unexpected payload. And the ending, such as it is – with no neat tying-up of threads, and the final notes being genuinely unsettling – pulls the comfort blanket away from the reader. It’s a masterstroke; and UnAmerican Activities is a little masterpiece.

 

Tamim Sadikali

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