Joyless House Book Reviews


Golden Rod 

by: Bram Riddlebarger

from: Cabal Books

follow: @B_Riddlebarger

Golden Rod has the feel of a fractured fairy tail. An allegory of sorts. Imagine if you will, an extra from Deliverance retelling Naked Lunch in the midst of a moonshine-peyote trance. It's something like that. 


Riddlebarger's protagonist, we quickly surmise, is in the throes of some modern-times existential crisis. A total breakdown-cum-rebirth into a life in communion with the garbage-strewn wilderness of Appalachia. We're not sure why, but he is compelled to cast off all his earthly possessions and start living off of acorns and tea brewed with putrid, orange river water. He accepts both an earthly and an apparitional incarnation of his faithful dog Sid. He does a spell in the looney bin, his dick turns yellow, the usual stuff. Finally he takes up with a delusional, quasi-revolutionary band of misfits who decide on a war against Appalachia's army of abandoned cars as a means of pressing their political/cosmic agenda. It's all pretty weird, but despite Riddlebarger's all out refusal to bend to narrative convention, by the end of the book, you find yourself connecting somewhat with these directionless characters. You find yourself pulling for them, just because their situation is so damn hopeless. You find yourself identifying with the struggle. Well done on that front, Bram.

The approach here reminded me a lot of the book This Hasn't Been a Very Magical Journey So Far by the writer Homeless which JH reviewed here New-Reviews. Though I think it can only be coincidence as that book isn't yet available for mass consumption... Unless Homeless and Riddlebarger are the same person! Hey if that shit turns out to be true you heard it here first!

Anyway, Scott McClanahan gives Golden Rod a nice blurb and he's smarter than I am, so what the fuck - pick it up.


by: Theresa Smith

from: Expat Press

Hot damn. You can be good and sure we at Joyless House were rubbing our hands together in fast and greedy fashion in anticipation of this offering! We have been clamoring for a tactile communion with Theresa Smith ever since we first came across . . . or perhaps a more cautious phrase is in order    . . . lest we appear unduly smitten . . . ever since we first happened upon - were hipped to and imbibed her writing on the Expat Press website. 

L is made up of ten stories of speculative fiction. Yes, I googled the term 'speculative fiction' and I believe it applies; it's vague but ominous. It's nice. Probably it would be best to just describe the book with an elaborate metaphor; try and not kick up a lot of noise about a lack of critical insight or any such crap like that. Yes. So . . . 

Imagine, if you will, you are having a dream. You are very stoned in this dream; perhaps your subconscious has stumbled upon the trail of an old acid trip. You are at your old school - the one you swore you'd never go back to. The classes seem about right: theology, geology, english lit, lots of advanced math . . . well, you've never had the keenest mind for math, but you figure you can bluff your way though. Then you get into class and HELL HOLY SHIT! The teacher is one of these raving lunatic types who wants to make your head spin with a lot of undulating theorems. You know the second she starts lashing and spiking her chalk against the board that you're in over your head. You hunker down and hold on to your desk hoping the crazy waves don't make you puke. Next you're spit out into some kind of fucked up, existential geology lab on the meaning of time, or the creation of the universe or some damn thing . . . you figure the soft subjects at least will give you some rest . . . you sit for a 'fast is funny; time is money' staging of an act from the New Testament; you take in the inquisition of Henry James's corpse. It's gory fun, but you still get the feeling there's meaning being hidden on you in the blind spots at the periphery of your perception. What you eventually have to figure out is that only when you stop casting interpretations and give yourself over to the author of your dream will you experience the full rush of disembodied entertainment. 

Nature of dreams being the nature of dreams, nothing in L happens in this order. And your reactions are all blown out of proportion by the craven incompetence of the bridge keepers of your mind. The point is: L is a fascinating read. It's just not for you soft and lazy types who only want to lie back and get rimmed by another post-ironic indie lit rehash - a comic book without pictures. 


If you must have specific criticisms: Smith's prose is trim and exact, unquestionable, really. And who the fuck would want to question her science? The author uses her intelligence as a stylistic weapon. Buckle up, 'cause she is going to kick your fucking ass.


by: Kelby Losack


Broken River Books

follow: @HeathenishKid

Heathenish is a harrowing read. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of a young thug in the throes of the existential crisis of our times. Our narrator is young and dissatisfied with every possible tool of self-destruction at his fingertips. He has creative ambitions and noble impulses that are nonetheless trumped at every turn by a ceaseless, drug-fueled malaise. 


The book opens with our man's relationship falling apart, leaving two little kids in the lurch. It's back to the old neighborhood and the old friends; much self abuse and murky soul searching ensues. I had a good time trying to cipher out all the drug slang. With a little help from google and the latest Shoreline Mafia videos I was reassured to find that the young people are doing essentially the same drugs we were doing 20 years ago. That's just a little levity from your friendly reviewer, something you won't find a lot of in Heathenish. Dude gets down into a right depressing spiral. He is struggling to be his kids' one reliable parent even as his amphetamine addiction deepens. The story is bleak and at times gut wrenching. Though the last couple chapters provide a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, as our protagonist finds a worthy love interest and takes a swing at kicking the hard drug habit. Or maybe he kills himself. You'll have to read Heathenish to find out. We at Joyless House aren't about spoiling everybody's shit.


Losack writes good, hard-boiled prose. Heathenish is billed as "hoodrat noir", which has a helluva nice ring to it.  One of the things that appealed to me most about the book was that it centered on the culture and crises of class not fixating on race. Class division is what we really need to focus on in this country. (climbs down from soap box) Oh wait, one more thing. (climbs back on to soap box) All you young, literary thugs, go out and get you this motherfuckin' book!

A Drunken Heap of Trouble Every Week

by: Brian Alan Ellis

visit: House of Vlad

follow: @brianalanellis

This collection is jam-packed with the C-word (content, jerks) and, if you're not already a fan, it's a good place to start your trip down Brian Alan Ellis Lane. It's not an especially well-maintained street, but you can buy drugs there. All sorts of "colorful characters" hang out there - seemingly all day with no place better to go - and you're bound to see something not quite like anything you've seen before. And sure, sure, it's safe on Brian's street. I mean, not like middle-class safe, but just keep your head screwed on and you'll be able to duck anything really nasty that comes your way. It'll probably be too drunk to shoot straight ,anyway.

The books begins with the novella 33 Fragments of Sick-Sad Living. Each fragment, or chapter, is like a free verse poem of varying length - none of them more than a page. They come together to tell the tale of a hapless loser basically having a quick existential crisis before work. I think we can all relate.


The ass end of this collection is a Waylon Thornton-illustrated jam called King Shit. I found this to be the weirdest and least autobiographical-feeling of Ellis's stuff that I've read. 

The meat in the sandwich here is The Mustache He's Always Wanted But Could Never Grow and Other Stories. It's a collection of 21 stories, most of them only a couple pages or less. Here is where Brian really hits his gimpy-ass stride. Ellis is a keen humorist and his stuff works best in these brief, nuanced takes on one sad, shameful, desperate scene or one underdog character or another. He's something like an old-school standup comedian and if you've heard him read in person, you can attest to this. His short stories play out like  finely-crafted jokes. Imagine the humor of Bill Cosby in the person of a wry, depressive Southern cracker. And if that's not a winning book blurb, I don't know what is.

Ballpoint Penitentiary

by: B. Diehl




Last month, I reviewed Diehl's first poetry collection, Zeller's Alley. Ballpoint Penitentiary, released about a year and a half later, reveals a more confident poet. The themes here are more or less the same: a young artist's alienation; a failure to find importance in the directionless march of modern man's army; the dubious search for love. Only this time around there is less striving for connection, or mourning its failure. Our poet here seems to somewhat accept his alien status and turn the lens outward, revealing a general audience that's unable, or more often, unwilling even to try to understand. Diehl writes with defiance and at times anarchistic malice. I must say I like it very much indeed. Fuck 'em if they can't take a brooding weirdo or two.

The more pointed vocabulary and tighter flow of Ballpoint too reflect and serve a more mature and defiant voice. But hell, my half-baked ramblings are only worth so much salt. Let's take a look at a few choice lines from Ballpoint Penitentiary:

Prostitution might as well be legal

in all 50 states.

When you have a standard day job in America,

you're already getting fucked for money.


The one thing to remember is that

naivety is a cancer. It will ransack

and pollute your vital organs.

Trust is always phase one of a war.



One of my favorite poems, Restraining Order, reads like it is just lifted from text messages from a worried/jealous ex:

"So... Patrick said he just saw you

jerking off in your car, near the park.

Have you lost your goddamn mind?


Diehl ends the book with a poem called I Probably Deserve an Oscar, that exemplifies perfectly his new, stronger turn. I will leave you all with a piece of that one and my strongest recommendation that you go out and by this book. You fucking flakes.

Maybe you left me

over something stupid.

I don't even remember at this point.

But I'm writing to let you know

that I forgive you.

In fact, I want to thank you.

You taught me honesty,

so here it is:

it wasn't until you

that the poems

began to find me.

Honestly, I owe you everything.

I'll even give you my Oscar.


That's nice, isn't it?