With “Knockout,” his third collection of stories, Minneapolis writer John Jodzio proves his devotion to the form. He’s happy playing with genre, too: Many stories here are latter-day specimens of dirty realism, while others invoke fairy tale, horror, the dystopian or surreal. What they share is a dark humor and a focus on the derelict lives shut off from any notion of the American dream.

Jodzio has a gift for the wacky compelling premise, and deploys a deceptively casual voice — calling to mind George Saunders — to create screwed-up, deeply sympathetic characters. In “Cannonball,” the lonely Lisa drifts along caring for her incapacitated, alcoholic father, an ex-soap opera star who sustained a nasty injury on an old “Battle of the Network Stars”-type TV special.

Jodzio’s characters are (often literally) the walking wounded, but he leaves them an out, a temporary off-ramp along the highway to hell. In “Knockout,” a recovering addict spends days in wrestling matches with his best friend; the loser has bawdy messages scrawled across his bare butt while knocked unconscious. Those are the good days, before they embark on a boneheaded scheme to steal a tiger.

The collection crackles with energy, its tales jolting in unexpected directions, pleasingly anarchic — typically short but not flash. You sometimes feel a little woozy after finishing one: Everything is half a bubble out of plumb. “Winnipeg” offers up a time not distant from our own, when American-occupied Montreal is boiling hot and three soldiers wounded in the ongoing war take a quixotic road trip past the dried-up Great Lakes.

“Our Mom and Pop Opium Den” riffs on a culture so homogenized that drug addiction is serviced by a sleek big-box shop called Opium Depot. The narrator tries to save his family’s “boutique” operation from going out of business while keeping his dementia-stricken father from running into traffic.

“Chet” evokes Gothic horror, magical realism, Almodovar. Chet, the narrator’s brother, dies after being bitten by “a sick elk,” his grave perpetually desecrated by a crazy priest. Some stories echo masters like Wells Tower or Bobbie Ann Mason, peopled with down-and-outers, nostalgic for glory days that weren’t. The dumped husband of “Athens, Athens” carries around his wife’s granny panties while working on a crew of misfit subcontractors, and a grief-stricken man befriends his dead lover’s widower so he can make off with some keepsakes (yes, panties) in “Ackerman Is Selling His Sex Chair for Ten Bucks.”

Like many characters in “Knockout,” he may be split open, but he finds small pockets of resilience. As one of the maimed men of “Winnipeg” observes, “Humans can get used to anything. … We just reset our expectations and find happiness in our revised baseline.”

 

Marian Ryan’s work has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Mail on Sunday and other publications.

Knockout
By: John Jodzio.
Publisher: Soft Skull Press, 196 pages, $15.95.
Events: Book launch, 7 p.m. April 7, with Sarah Stonich, Chrissy Kolaya and B.J. Hollars, Magers & Quinn; 4 p.m. April 14, with Nicole Helget and Emma Törzs, University of Minnesota Bookstore, Mpls.