What’s the Worst Thing You’ve Ever Done?: Stephen Graham Jones’ Flushboy

If you thought you had a crappy job when you were a teenager, wait until you hear about this. Working there might not piss you off, but there are worse things than mere irritation …

Last year, I delved into some of author Stephen Graham Jones’ horror and suspense fiction following the release of The Only Good Indians. That novel was so good, I had to read more. This year, I continue exploring into the author’s prolific output. First up is something a little different. Instead of a slasher or supernatural narrative, we get a different side of the author’s backlist with the coming of age novel, Flushboy.

Yes. Flushboy. Hell of a title that, yeah?

The story tackles an unnamed narrator’s teen years working at his dad’s automated urinal. Think of a car wash, but instead of buying cleanliness packages, you end up picking up one or more plastic urinals (Johns or Janes depending on user’s equipment), suffer through various Upsells, and then ride along in the comfort and privacy of your own car, relieving yourself and then handing over the filled container(s) to the employee for disposal at the end.

It’s utterly ludicrous, would never work in a long term, but it’s such a weird idea that I’m surprised no one has tried it yet.

Anyway. Flushboy (as good a name for the narrator as any) has all the sorts of problems one expects from teens. He’s a bit of a trickster who ended up getting caught and then coerced into working for the family business. That’s right. The place is the brainchild of his urine-obsessed Dad, a guy who throws back quite a few near beers when he’s not clandestinely replacing urinal cakes in the (free) competition or distributing brochures announcing all the potential dangers in partaking of free restrooms. “He really feels like he’s providing the world a service here.” (10) Flushboy does his day to day grind, suffers the stigma of the job at high school (kids leave Gatorade bottles filled with piss into his locker), and otherwise guides us through a day spent obsessing over a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship that looks like it’s ending, the mysteries behind the identity of the local sports mascot Chickenstein, and the oddities he works alongside. Of course, he assures us, “I’ve considered running away, yeah. Many times.” (10)

Like the business model, this is a story that really shouldn’t work. There are too many odd details, too many tall tales, too many elements that just don’t jive. And yet, classy author that he is, Stephen Graham Jones gives us characters worth following around. The author invests the story with heart, hope, laughs and even a few sobs. Details of the job aside (and Flushboy cannot help but share the details of his job, which only lends the whole preposterous thing more credibility), the story wisely zeroes in on its people, and it is told in the engaging voice of a guy who begins mired in despair, run an emotional marathon, and ends up somewhere far different than he started. The whole book takes place over maybe a day or so, but it doesn’t feel rushed. The changes are organic, and the flow of situations is all perfectly logical (or at least it pays strict adherence to the logic established). It is Texas tall tale (did I mention the story takes place in Texas, which makes the job somehow even more credible than it would be in any other state of the union?) meets YA fiction meets coming of age story meets achieving empathy with those who came before yarn. There are so many turning wheels in this piece, it should come apart, roll right off the assembly line before its conclusion. It threatens to at several points, but then it gets back on track just as easy as you please.

I am hard pressed to think of another author who can balance the grit, the sense of humor, and the heart in the right proportions to pull off this sort of story. Jones performs an impressive juggling act worth watching, and the length of the thing is just right to hold our attention. Any longer, and the whole thing would collapse under its own weight. Any shorter and the emotional payoffs in the final section would not bear quite the fruit this one does.

The novel is overflowing with humor. There’s plenty of the potty sort, as we might expect—folks who scrape up auto accidents and their victims lend themselves toward black humor to get through the day, after all, so it stands to reasons that folks who deal with liquid waste would develop an ease with pee jokes. Some of this arises from word play, some from situations (there’s a flood in the tail end of the book that is both laugh out loud funny and utterly disgusting to think about; thank goodness the book does not come in smell-o-vision!), and a few from observations about the way people work in a small city/town setting. Often, the passages of mixtures of all the above, such as the section opening Part Two of the narrative (subtitled The Great American Splashdown):

Because we’re a facility that serves the public, the rule is that we have to have a public restroom. In single-toilet cases like ours, there has to be a unisex sign, a lockable door, a sink with eventually hot water and soap, and a last-serviced sheet at eye level with room for employees to initial.

Never mind that access to a public restroom takes money from our register.

My dad’s solution is to arrange an obstacle course of OUT-OF-ORDER and PISO-MOJADO signs and cones and tape all along the narrow hall, so that it’s just bad luck that whatever wily customer’s made it back this far chose now to try to use our restroom, instead of later, when it would surely have been available, or earlier, when nobody was even using it.

Just for appearances, though, we have to let every twentieth or thirtieth customer through. “At our discretion,” of course, with eye contact all around, meaning it had better not be our friends’ names that keep showing up in the guestbook, understand?

And if the freeloading customer’s name happens to be I.P. Freely or Ivana Tinkle or P. Rivers or Peter Pantz or any fake-o Indian name with “Yellow Snow” in it, then it’s our asses.

Flushboy, 43-44

Jones well knows of what he speaks, since he experienced his own coming of age in a similar location in west Texas. His author’s afterward spins quite a backlog of jobs worked, and we can tell from Flushboy’s narrative that the author knows a thing or two about the routines of coming to work, enduring a grueling day, and trying to work that peculiar magic to get someone to cover for you that is uniform across the hourly gigs teens have to work. Flushboy is only sixteen in the book, but he could be a fair standing for anyone between the years of fifteen and twenty stuck in a demeaning job serving other people’s needs.

Jones has a knack for giving us not only teen angst (something Jones reveals another author commented on in his past) but for revealing the telling details in the relationships guys have with their fathers or their sons. Much of Flushboy is taken from a place of being the rebellious teen oppressed by a dad, but the other side of that equations shines through as well. The dad looking at his boy, remembering his own teen years, and trying to balance the responsibilities of age with the awareness that young folks need to fuck up on their own if they’re going to learn anything. I’ve commented before about how well Jones writes about fathers and sons.

This time, Jones also brings a mother into the equation and though her physical presence is restricted to a couple of chapters, her reach still stretches across the book. Come to think of it, the way he writes about that character is sort of a trial run for the way he establishes and draws The Elk Woman across the entirety of The Only Good Indians. The two books and the two characters are wildly different on the surface and in the analysis; however, the way he manages to invoke the presence of characters who only appear at strictly necessary moments is similar.

Flushboy might use an unlikely backdrop for its characters to grow and change, but it nevertheless delivers a quality story of the human heart in conflict with itself and a young man who discovers his dad might not be the impossible to understand mutant he always assumed. It is a novel about the importance of both perception and, unsurprisingly, being relieved of building pressures. It’s quintessential quirky fiction, executed with craft, wit, and heart.

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Flushboy is available in eBook and paperback editions.

Next up, we return to the world of Barbara Neely’s housemaid sleuth with the second book in her quartet: Blanche Among the Talented Tenth. That novel is available as a standalone eBook, paperback, and audiobook as well as in the Blanche: Four Novels eBook compilation.

WORKS CITED

Jones, Stephen Graham. Flushboy. Dzanc Books: 2013.

“What’s the Worst Thing You’ve Ever Done?: Stephen Graham Jones’ Flushboy” is copyright © 2021 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the Dzanc Books paperback, released 2013.

Disclosure: Considering Stories is a member of the Amazon Associates program. Qualifying purchases made using the product links above can result in the Considering Stories site receiving a percentage of the purchase price as a payment from Amazon.com.

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