Chalk

Broken Pencil - - Book Reviews -

Doug Di­aczuk, 157 pages, Anvil Press, anvil­press.com, $18.00

This is Doug Di­aczuk’s first pub­lished novel, writ­ten over the span of three days for the 38th An­nual 3-Day Novel Writ­ing Con­test (which it won). It opens on a de­light­fully ab­sur­dist note when the pro­tag­o­nist vis­its a gro­cery store and pro­ceeds to eat all the free cheese sam­ples while try­ing to main­tain his dig­nity. A lit­tle while later, the book gen­tly re­veals to you that this scene was nei­ther de­light­ful nor ab­surd. It was sad, and the pro­tag­o­nist is sad, and we’re all sad: chalk flow­ers drawn by chil­dren on side­walks are trod on by passersby and washed away, never to be seen again. I was hooked. The book is writ­ten in the sec­ond-per­son sin­gu­lar. It is a story about You, and you are not a par­tic­u­larly good per­son. You are rude to ser­vice work­ers, and in­con­sid­er­ate of your friends. You’ve just got­ten out of a re­la­tion­ship, hate your job, have hor­ri­ble travel anx­i­ety and need to go visit your sis­ter.

Use of the sec­ond-per­son point-ofview of­ten comes across as gim­micky, but Di­aczuk pulls it off: com­bined with his sparse writ­ing, it in­vites the reader to fill in de­tails and make as­sump­tions about the pro­tag­o­nist, which are later con­firmed or dis­proved. This does a good job of keep­ing the reader en­gaged.

Still, Chalk reads very much as a book about a straight white guy writ­ten by a straight white guy, which is usu­ally some­thing I go out of my way to avoid. There’s a whole bit where the pro­tag­o­nist meets a per­son whose gen­der he can’t quite de­ter­mine, so he al­ter­nates be­tween male and fe­male pro­nouns when re­fer­ring to them. Later, he sees them naked, and as­signs them a gen­der based on their gen­i­talia. Oops. On the other hand, many of the pro­tag­o­nist’s char­ac­ter­is­tics read as re­fusals of toxic tra­di­tional mas­culin­ity: the pro­tag­o­nist is sen­si­tive, per­cep­tive and car­ing. He cries a lot. Maybe there’s hope for straight white guys yet?

The fact that al­most all the dis­cus­sion I’ve seen about this book hinges on the fact that it was writ­ten over a pe­riod of 72 hours seems like a dis­ser­vice. It’s a well-crafted story, a sweet, melan­choly ride through some in­ter­est­ing thoughts about re­la­tion­ships, iden­tity and vis­i­bil­ity. Also, shoutout to Derek von Essen and Heimath­ouse for the de­sign of this book. It’s *really* nice.

If you like in­tro­spec­tive books with a hint of ab­sur­dist hu­mour, then you might want to give Chalk a try. (Vic­tor Martins)

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