It begins with a lie. A good one. The author, after all, is an expert liar. He disarms you for only a moment when he admits it, his expression unchanged.
Andy Mozina, an English professor at Kalamazoo College since 1999 and author of the new story collection, Quality Snacks (Wayne State University Press, May 2014), makes his admission, or confession, on air in a recent interview for the Arts and More program at the WMUK radio station, Kalamazoo’s NPR affiliate. Yes, he lies, he says.
As do all fiction writers, and Mozina is fast gaining notoriety as such. Quality Snacks is Mozina’s second story collection. His first, The Women Were Leaving the Men, also published by Wayne State University Press (2007), won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award and was a finalist for the Glasgow/Shenandoah Prize for Emerging Writer. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, including Tin House, Ecotone, Fence, The Southern Review, and The Missouri Review, and has received special citations in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the Midwest. His critical work, Joseph Conrad and the Art of Sacrifice, was published by Routledge in 2001.
On the morning of his radio interview Mozina enters the studio breathless. He abandoned his car, he says, realizing that he was running late. The car was beached like a whale on the grass, he says, with hazard lights blinking and doors swinging open as he tore up the campus in his race to the studio.
Really? Not quite. As it turns out, Mozina’s car is parked in its parking spot, squared between the yellow lines, doors locked, lights off, engine cool.
Mozina grins, just a little. This is how he tells stories, building on near nothing, embellishing, adding twists and surprises and horseshoe turns on every page. He says he often begins his story idea with the twist, then builds the story around it.
Quality Snacks is a collection of 15 stories, each one with Mozina’s signature sense of wry humor. The stories, for the most part, are built around the efforts of middle-aged men struggling with relationship issues.
Santa Claus as a baseball player may not qualify as middle-aged in the final story, “No Joy in Santa’s Village,” but he nevertheless struggles with deteriorating relationships with his elves, who have come to resent him for what they consider Santa’s shortcomings. In fact, the elves in the dugout are showing a dark side as they clamor for Santa flesh in retribution for those long winter nights.
“His dugout was filled with elves. Some never moved, some never sat still—whittling a piece of wood into a bat, whittling the bat into baseballs, whittling the baseballs into tiny bats, which were whittled into still tinier baseballs. Some were incontinent, some respired entirely through their pores, like plants. Some rooted for Santa, some cast spells against him. At each game they created a locked-ward atmosphere in the dugout. Last year, one or another of the elves would occasionally streak onto the field in the middle of a game, tear up a piece of turf, and retreat toward the bench, gibbering hysterically, holding the turf aloft.” (Page 184, “No Joy in Santa’s Village”)
As for Doritos, a popular snack by Frito-Lay, Mozina says he once had an addiction for the chips, but, happily, has been able to conquer it. His title story, “Quality Snacks,” is a story of a team of Frito-Lay employees brainstorming new and vitamin-fortified flavors for the snack (burrito, chicken quesadilla, enchilada, refried beans), perhaps even marketing them as a main meal rather than just a snack.
Mozina won’t admit to a fear of dogs, but his opening story, “Dogs I Have Known,” begs to differ. He’s convincing. In one mini-story after another, the narrator describes dogs that have made an appearance in his life, none truly vicious, yet Mozina manages to make even the nicest pup at least a little unnerving with toothy potential.
The banker and the college professor meet over sandwich wraps and keep on meeting into what warms and then sizzles into “My Nonsexual Affair: A Tale of Strong and Unusual Feelings.” Lines are not exactly crossed but toed and danced upon with increasing insistence, and Mozina manages his signature effect on the reader once again.
That effect: to make us see ourselves at our nerdiest, geekiest, weakest, most vulnerable and so also most human. Even as we wince and sigh, glad that’s not me…we have to admit, some of it is. The silly human condition, the offbeat element of truth that is stranger than fiction, unless it’s Mozina’s fiction.