I am half-way through Michael Garriga’s debut collection of stories and I am thinking Michael Garriga, the name of the author, is nom de plume. His biography reads shrimp picker, bartender, soundman at a blues bar and writing teacher at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. I never heard of the school, so I looked it. Mr. Garriga is now an assistant professor of English teaching undergraduate creative writing at the University. There are no professional Writers’ Workshop; no the graduate writing program. The latter is limited to teaching education. The book is published by Milkweed Editions, a small press located in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. The front cover has a very engaging pen and ink drawing and other such illustrations by Tynan Kerr and presumably Mr. Garriga’s wife, grace the book. Milkweed Editions is promoting the illustrations in the book. The book and Mr. Garriga have received favorable reviews. The back cover has a testimonial by Robert Olen Butler, a short story writer who was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. The testimonial in part reads, “‘The Book of Duels’ is one of the most extraordinary first books of fiction I’ve ever read.” I second this.
The title is a little misleading, as these are not all duels in the traditional sense. The book sets the stage with quotations about traditional duels. Mark Twain’s is among the best.
“I thoroughly disapprove of duels. I consider them unwise and I know they are dangerous. Also sinful. If a man should challenge me now, I would go to that man and take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot, and kill him.”
Mr. Garriga triangulates the dual. The stories are 4-5 page vignettes, with three perspectives: the two protagonists and the second; a witness; a relative bystander; or a peripheral victim. As expected the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is included. The perspectives and other protagonists are unexpected. The language is at times sermonic, poetic, streetwise or historically vernacular, and Faulknerian in cadence. These are soliloquies, the prose is confessional in search of a period. Stripping the vignettes to excerpt would not be representative of the whole. Both style and emotion would be diffused. You have to take my word about the quality of this writing.
Mr. Garriga is a storyteller of Southern Creole origin. I could as easily hear these stories on The Moth or at a story telling venue as read them. In my opinion, it is rare, even in well written literature, to be both visual and aural. Authors at book readings often fail to grasp this.
For short story writers you wonder if they have a novel in them. The same may be asked about Mr. Garriga- does he have longer short stories in him. It is the wrong question, although I think he has the skills and imagination to write both literary forms. He invents and inhabits the minds of the protagonists in revisiting historic and allegorical events. It is not unlike what Colm Toibin did in “The Testament of Mary.” Mr. Garriga has taken a vise grip to the short story form and compressed it to its essential elements. These compressed stories may be the new form of short story for an impatient age.
The range of “duels” is expansive. He categorizes them into Offense, Challenge, and Satisfaction. The weapons are varied: instruments of death, words, art form, children, labor, roosters (cocks), and vehicles. The “duels” are confrontations and contests. The historic periods covered extend from Biblical times until today. Abolition and slavery are well represented, as is the Creole experience. Broadly the subject “duals” include:
David and Goliath
Abel and Cain
Don Quixote and the Windmill (a.k.a Argus Nicholas the Giant)
George and the Dragon
Musashi and Kojiro (Samurai and Founder of the Kenjutsu School)
Custer and Ptebola Ska (White Cow Bull)
Fuego (Miura Bull) and Ignacio Lopez Avaloz (matador)
Jacques Le Gris and Jean de Carrouges (last trial by combat in France, Charles VI in attendance)
Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tuttle, Jr.
Sellers vs. Sellers (a marital dispute)
Donatello vs. Michelangelo vs. da Vinci
Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery and King Henry II
Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”) and Charles Dickinson
Arthur John (Jack) Johnson (World Heavyweight Boxing Champion) and Gregori Rasputin
I admire Milkweed Editions in bringing attention to this book and Mr. Garriga. I am not sure if it has the resources to appropriately promote both and this would be unfortunate. For me, I think this is what appropriation editors and literary agents dream of. This is a diamond in the rough. It would be a lost opportunity if someone does not help polish this stone.
This is a definite read. You are not likely to find it in a library (save for the great Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library). I will be buying a copy, and I would suggest you do the same. It is available on Amazon (it got great reviews) and through Milkweed Editions (http://milkweed.org/). A MUST read!
In the interest of full disclosure, I have no conflicts of interest. I was not asked to write this review; have no affiliation with Milkweed Editions, Amazon, the Garriga’s or anyone affiliated with them.