Lowlife, Short Stories by Michael Botur.
available from Amazon.com
RRP: $24.99. Pb, 250pp.
ISBN: 13: 9781547018598.
Reviewed by Jeremy Roberts.
Lowlife is a collection of sixteen funny, edgy short stories from Mike Botur that can be taken as a ‘tip of the hat’ to the strugglers and ‘losers’ of our society. That is not to say that these people are homeless or ‘down and out’, but rather the choices made by most of the characters would not cut it at any ‘respectable’, politically-correct middle-class family’s dining table. That is partly why this book is such a tasty, refreshing read. It’s as if Mr Botur hung out at CBD fast-food outlets after midnight – swilling bad coffee on a hard-plastic seat, listening to conversations, and jotting observational notes under the garish yellow lighting. It could be that this is the best environment for reading Lowlife, too. There is a ring of authenticity about these stories – both in the language used by the characters and in the physical descriptions of their environments. It is interesting to speculate as to which stories might spring from Botur’s own experience. His plots – cause and effect, rapid-fire ‘shaggy-dog’, or ‘wtf?’ – are well-crafted and his characters convincing. Botur is not so much a moralist, as an informer – without ever becoming a show-off. His titles, like the stories themselves, have a no-nonsense vibe about them too: ‘Cut Throat’, ‘Survive September’, ‘Cathedral with Tranny’, ‘Fuckup Day’, ‘The Ritch Bitch’.
In ‘Rock or Bust’, Botur gets right inside the mind of a true working-class nameless Rock freak who quits his job on impulse, because he ‘won’t work for no cunt what doesn’t respect the Skynyrd’. The reader is the character – e.g. ‘You mosh your head, alone in the passenger seat’. This funny story is an account of tragic self-delusion that is fed by some bs recognition from a Rock radio station and a social-media addiction that once upon a time would have had no place in a genuine Rock ‘n’ Roll life – ‘You tweet @Metallica, ask the band if there’s any openings for the king of Rock to come aboard their road crew’. Desperate to be let into the inner sanctum, all his waking moments are directed to this end. He’s seriously annoyed when the female DJ ‘Hannah Hardcore’ (who he believes is his link to fame and fortune) is called by her real name, Hannah Corning, by another DJ at the station. ‘You a heretic, bro?’ he asks. Botur has really nailed the delusion and denial that mega-fans can experience and the sad road of denial that can follow. ‘Who needs the dole anyway’, Botur’s loser tells himself, ‘You’re a radio insider. You’re the one man who did what no one else would do. Metallica are a bit late tweeting back, but it’ll happen…’ (p 14). Yes, it’s true – Rock music unfortunately does appeal to idiots.
‘The Kurt Shirt’ is one of the strongest stories in the collection, a peer-group tale of bonding, sexuality and bullying. Two thirteen-year old boys meet. Johnny is initially fascinated by Sage, whom he construes as a music guru, accepting his opinions without question and his lectures on what is cool and what is not – eg ‘It’s ALL ABOUT the 27 Club, man. You die at 27, it’s like epically significant’ (p 118). Johnny quickly builds up very high expectations of his new friend. There is a one-off homosexual encounter between the two, humorously sketched: ‘Sage’s hand spidered across the floor and crept into Johnny’s sleeping bag. Johnny’s diddle was alert and ready…’ (p 118). But the friendship falls apart when Johnny must share his new friend with another male, called Carson. Johnny feels rejected, gets angry and ultimately uses his sexual knowledge of Sage to spread rumours and begin an anti-gay campaign, which he finds support for. Having warned Carson, and made a new friend, he discovers that Carson’s family are anti-gay, too. Johnny even has a self-designed ‘fag-buster’ tattoo done on himself by Carson’s dad. Botur swings the peer pressure back the other way, when Johnny is embarrassed by a group of young males who don’t approve of the message on his body. There is a failed attempt to have the tattoo removed, and then an unexpected encounter some years later with Sage, who by now has become a highly-regarded world authority on music matters – and a hardcore drug addict. Surprisingly, he is happy to see Johnny. He gives a chilling explanation via Scott Weiland of The Stone Temple Pilots: ‘The opioid family brings a sense of enlightenment … like a drop of water re-joining the ocean’ (p 134). Botur is not going for a karmic-payback ending here, so we are left to wonder what feelings Sage now has about all the gay-shaming that Johnny previously directed towards him. It’s a good ending – full of unspoken guilt, insecurity, and questions.
In ‘Granny Frankenstein’, there is a lot of fun to be had watching a sixty-year-old arthritic, baby-sitting, ex-Sunnyside Hospital nurse turn her life upside down by becoming a shrewd, manipulative drug boss. The turning point in Frankie’s life is an unexpected toke on a bit of weed, which her minor-league dealing neighbour-dudes (Meat and Romeo) give her in return for some fresh tomatoes. She digs getting high, and gains a fresh perspective on her current lifestyle and what the future could be: ‘She thinks about Meat’s Magical Medicine and about the $2,500 overdraft she’s always wanted to spend’ (p 229). Her home soon becomes the point of sale and she ‘does not expect her heart to glow when shivering strangers look her in the eyes with sincere appreciation’. After learning the ins and outs of the business, she takes charge and develops a very smooth operation – complete with clean-ups involving her garden tools, which are used to mutilate ‘impolite customers’. As the title suggests, Granny gradually becomes something of a monster. The major issues with her ungrateful daughter and her drug-squad / policeman-husband are ultimately dealt with in a murderous way. Meat and Romeo even try to get Frankie to go legit, but as it turns out, ‘Granny’s discovered the strongest drug of all – revenge’ (p 244).
Botur has done well, putting these stories together – creating a bevy of characters with potential beyond the vivid snapshots in this publication. He seems naturally drawn to gangsta-vibe scenarios. You could argue that none of the characters is particularly likeable, but in an age of cynical, self-declared celebrity and Reality TV this is barely noticeable. They are all succinctly drawn, colourful, and highly entertaining. For some readers – probably educational.
Lowlife is super phat. Buy it and start reading.
Jeremy Roberts (Napier, Aotearoa NZ) MC’s at CAN Live Poetry; has performed poems with musicians in NZ, USA, and South-East Asia, taught Primary school children, and has been widely published. His collected works, ‘Cards on the Table’ was published by IP in 2015. https://www.facebook.com/Jeremy-Roberts-Poet