Brock Clarke, a Portland novelist and storyteller, moved to Cincinnati a few months after a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in 2001. The police action sparked riots, and a national magazine asked Clarke to write an essay about race and post-riot Cincinnati.
Instead, Clarke wrote a fable. In his absurdist story, the riots were not caused by a white cop killing a black kid, but by a white barber who says racist things whilst giving cheap haircuts. That causes white men to set aside their political beliefs in pursuit of cheap haircuts.
The story is the centerpiece of Clarke’s new collection, “The Price of a Haircut: Stories.” Algonquin Books will publish the collection on Tuesday, and that evening Clarke will celebrate the book’s release with a reading and conversation with another of Portland’s star storytellers, the writer Michael Paterniti. Their talk begins at 7 p.m. at Print: A Bookstore in Portland. On April 25, Clarke will talk about the book with another stellar storyteller and writer, Ron Currie, at the Portland Public Library as part of the library’s Literary Lunch series.
Clarke, best known for his novel “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England,” fills his new collection with social satire that is witty, funny, insightful and, at times, uncomfortable. He writes about racism in contemporary America, post-traumatic stress disorder, child actors and marital discord.
In an interview at Black Cat Coffee on Stevens Avenue, Clarke said he was looking forward to the public conversation with his pal Paterniti. They often talk about their writing when they get together. “We’ll be doing what we do normally, but in front of other people – for better or worse,” Clarke said. “Michael has great curiosity. He asks great questions.”
The title of the book is a riff on “The Price of a Ticket,” the name of a collection of essays by James Baldwin, published in 1985.
The stories in this collection are tied together by what one critic called Clarke’s “savage soul.” These are stories no one else would dare write, because Clarke likes to write to the edge of what’s acceptable when it comes to sarcasm and social commentary.
“I hope to do something in ways that will surprise people,” he said.
He succeeds with his stories in “The Price of a Haircut.” He calls his collection a book of bad ideas.
In “The Pity Palace,” an unhappy husband in Florence, Italy, believes his wife has left him for a famous novelist and sells tickets to tourists eager to meet someone more miserable than they are. In “Children Who Divorce,” he writes about child actors from the movie “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” who re-create their roles in a dinner-theater sequel. Despite growing older, they still haven’t quite grown up. In “Concerning Lizzie Borden, Her Axe, My Wife,” a couple tries to mend marital discord by booking a night in a B&B that was once the home of the infamous murderess. In another, a squabbling family allows its public spats to be interpreted as performance art.
These are the stories of characters afflicted with self-absorption and delusional ideas.
In an essay that his publisher is circulating to promote the book, Clarke writes of the title piece in the collection, “But rather than thinking of this story, and others in this collection, as bad ideas, maybe it’s better to think of them as absurd ideas. Because to my mind, absurdity is often the best way to fully appreciate how very bad our very bad ideas really are.”
Clarke, who teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and has lived in Portland since 2010, has written two other collections of stories and four novels, including the super-satirical “The Happiest People in the World” in 2014.
He is working on another novel for publication in spring 2019. Juggling two books, as he did with the collection and the coming novel, is challenging, especially for a self-described chronic time-waster. “I like to go cross-country skiing, walk the dog, wash the dishes – anything but writing,” he said.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 20
WHERE: Print: A Bookstore, 273 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: Free
INFO: 207-536-4778 or printbookstore.com