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Book Review: A Jello Horse

A Jello Horse
By Matthew Simmons
Publishing Genius Press, 2009

In Tom Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction, we’re welcomed to “Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve,” a combination hot dog stand and zoo that’s described as “a little roadside attraction sitting out in the rains of isolated Northwest America, enticing passing motorists with a sausage smile,” that has “sunshine juices for mildewed tummies and exotic exhibitions for jaded eyes.” At one point the establishment is suspected as being a front for something greater, “some evolutionary religious awakening.” While Robbins’s novel is a vehicle for a scathingly satirical attack on “churchianity” and religiosity in general, Matthew Simmons’s A Jello Horse—with novelty sites of its own—is a horse of a different color. Its “psychic frontier,” to use another phrase from Robbins’s novel, is one filled with fantastic childhood visions, Xanax-fueled hallucinations (maybe), depression-drenched reveries, and just pages of wonderful weirdness.

Like Attraction’s colorful cast of various dropouts, crazies, and a baboon, A Jello Horse is stocked with a motley crew of its own, including people enigmatically known by their three-lettered names, i.e., the troubled trio LEM, DEV, MEG, and also TAD who “is a she, but she lives mostly as a he,” and then a whole assortment of animals like a Russian bear named Boris, a Canadian caribou named Mick that makes “thundering, smacking noises with its mouth,” a snake, a lion “that sleeps next to the house, disappears, sinks into the world,” and a herd of giant antelope, the so-called royal court of ungulates,

grazing on the buildings of the city. They were chewing roofs, and walking slowly north to south. They were devastating the city, eating all the tallest buildings, and then bowing low to grab at chimneys on the houses.

recalls how someone mentions “the saddest thing you have ever heard anybody say in your entire life.” Reminiscent of Ford Maddox Ford’s famous opening line “This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard,” it is one of the many pitch-perfect moments in this novella. And the saddest thing?

“DEV says I’ll never be able to call him up and recommend a movie to him ever again.

How is it possible? How is it possible that this is the saddest thing you have ever heard anyone say? You don’t know, really. You just know that it is.”

Simmons writes with a pellucid quality that makes you think of summer lakes, winter skies, all kind of glass: windshields, windowpanes, and whatever invisible box whose ceiling you want to shatter. Even when he’s talking about fog everything seems clear:

Raindrops cut through the fog on the window, like rivers on maps, like highways on maps. You stared out the window, watching the fog on the window disappear, watching the antelope devour Madison, and then you went to sleep right there on the floor, next to the window, with the corner of the curtain peeled back.

You get the sense in A Jello Horse that Simmons is always peeling back the curtains, that he’s giving you an intimate glimpse of people collapsing, despairing, bolstering themselves with booze and each other. And as you travel with him along the same unremarkable roads and highways, past drab buildings, strip malls, motels, fast food joints, and chain stores, and away from the heaviness of mourning to outlying roadside attractions like “Carhenge” (where supposedly a tornado threw a bunch of cars in a configuration mirroring Stonehenge), “Toadstool Park” (where he meets a desert tortoise that’s as large as a stadium), “The House of 2000 Telephones” (another magical place, where the plot—which is necessarily skeletal—twists), and other places, you can’t help but lose yourself in wonder, and agree that you too are

day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second, given choices to make, and you make them, and off you go. And also, you don’t make choices, but those possible paths move off in their own ways, anyway.

This novella is a quick read but at the end of it you will feel winded from its ennui, its anxiety, its sadness, while also feeling buoyed by its magical interludes and its end-of-the-road reaching for connection, security, and maybe even, to use a much abused word in recent days, hope.