“The Guy in the Box,” by Iain S. Baird

Iain S. Baird

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

True confession. I have long been a fan of Iain Baird’s writing, so I approached his new short story collection, The Guy in the Box, with high expectations. Baird more than met them. I was already familiar with a number of these stories because they won awards in the Seven Hills Literary Contest during the years I oversaw that competition and edited the resulting chapbooks. The rest of the stories proved equally delightful.

Baird has a gift for combining a keen sense of humor with unusual insight into the human condition. His writing, while literary in every best sense of the word, never slides into pretension. The characters in this collection are ordinary people: the elderly who resist limits on their freedom, injured veterans, beggars on the streets of India, fathers who have stretched the truth so often in outrageous stories you don’t know if they are lying about the important stuff. The stories are marked by catchy, decisive opening scenes and often end with clever, unexpected twists.

In the first story, “The Flight,” an unnamed “old man” dreams about his days as a helicopter pilot in Korea. At ninety-three, his body shows all the usual signs of wearing out: cataracts, incontinence, hearing loss, aches and pains. So when his dining companion Betty suggests running off to Mexico rather than going into assisted living, he agrees. On the road, he thinks about the loss of his wife “and all the other losses over the years. There was such little left.” Only Betty understands that “he wasn’t crazy; he was just old.” In the poignant last scene, the old man’s “vision was clear” as he “flew on into the night.” A different kind of flight for this old pilot, one towards his death.

One of my all-time favorites is “The One-Upper,” a piece full of wickedly delicious, horribly tasty humor. We’ve all met the one-upper, that person who tries to top everything you say. At an elegant dinner party, two men abandon all manners by slinging across the table outrageous examples of the strangest foods they’d ever eaten. Much to their wives’ horror, their husbands claim to have eaten everything from live termites to sheep’s eyeballs to grilled sparrows. The pissing contest goes downhill from there, creating “shock and awe on the other diners’ faces.” In trademark fashion, Baird delivers a devastating sucker punch at the end.

The title piece is another favorite, juxtaposing dark humor devolving into slapstick, yet ending with unexpected tenderness. The narrator wants to scream at his wife and in-laws, believing them to be in denial about his father-in-law’s dementia. They excuse Louie’s behavior by explaining he’s always been eccentric and scatter-brained, an inventor/mad-scientist type, one with over two hundred patents to his name. At a funeral for a family friend, the eccentricity reaches new heights when Louie demands to know who the guy in the box is and soon is crawling under the casket to see how it works, sure he can invent a better couch. The widow faints and takes down a whole row of chairs “and most of her immediate family.” A moment straight out of Saturday Night Live. The narrator now thinks he’s won—succeeded at last in convincing the family that Louie is as unhinged as the casket he wants to invent. Instead, the narrator’s wife suggests the family can continue “refusing to see anything out of the ordinary,” because admitting Louie’s dementia “would destroy this family, as we know it.” Or they can continue to brush off his behavior as “Dad just being Dad—but more so—and deal with the ‘more so’ until a time when we no longer can.” She suggests there’s no harm in continuing to believe that story for one more night, or for as long as possible. As she brushes her hand along the back of the narrator’s head, her love, her kind heart, her wisdom become apparent to the reader, and just maybe to the narrator as well.

The collection covers an impressive range of subject matter. In “Salt,” Baird skewers minimalism as an artistic movement. “The Fatalist” considers how much of our lives are governed by our own choices and how much is determined by fate. “The Creek” explores the complications of sibling relationships: the way brothers and sisters can pester and torture each other, but also how you can depend on them for “trust and truth.” Two unusual flash fiction pieces feature inanimate objects as narrators, “Pothole” and “Bend in the Road.” A number of stories are set in India, including “A Night at the Taj,” celebrating an age of innocence in the days before terrorist attacks and helicopter parenting, and “The Man With No Nose,” centered around a leper and his family.

Whether Baird is writing about men crippled by war and alcoholism or children whose Halloween prank results in tragedy, his stories illustrate the deft touches of a master storyteller. The creation of a character that feels like someone you know. The precise detail that transports you into the scene, whether it’s set in New York or New Orleans. The accurate rendering of that “ah-ha” moment of illumination in someone’s life. Small wonder his stories have won so many awards.

Iain Baird is also the author of a memoir, Two Storms. His work has won numerous prizes from the Maryland Writers Association and the Tallahassee Writers Association. He also won the William March Award for Best Short Story and the Eugene Walter Award for Best Novel. He was a Finalist for the William Wisdom Award from the William Faulkner Festival and won the First Place Award in the Delmarva Review’s 2012 Short fiction Contest. Baird splits his time between Annapolis, Maryland, and Alligator Point, Florida.

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  1. Roberta Burton says

    The One-Upper is one of my all-time favorite short stories.

  2. Well done, Iain. I’ve loved your writing since I first discovered it at The Eugene Walter Writers’ Festival back in the day.

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