Shorts Pocket Review: “Ghost Plane” by Joe Meno

Although Joe Meno’s story collection Demons in the Spring is bursting with supernatural elements, “Ghost Plane” is about as unfantastic as it gets. His storytelling is not so much hyperrealist as it is a short, sharp representation, a diorama or a tilt-shift photograph—so real it looks like a fable.

The story’s two characters, stranded in Belize at the tail end of a very unsuccessful vacation, are not particularly nice people. But neither are they evil. Billy and Nicole are just your garden-variety assholes; he’s a bit of a sleaze and an ugly American in mirror shades and a tropical shirt, she’s a spoiled young high-maintenance type. But beyond that, they’re just folks. You’ve known them, or perhaps you’ve been them. And surely you’ve had that bad vacation sensation even with your dearest beloved, when you’ve checked into the room and are lying side by side on the bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering exactly how you’re going to fill the next series of days without the backdrop of normal life that holds everything together.

Billy and Nicole are definitely not dearest beloveds. He picked her up at a party because he liked her breasts, and they made out in a taxicab. But they’re not strangers, either. There’s a relationship here—some time elapsed between the taxicab makeout session and their actually “doing it,” and there have been birthday presents—but Billy’s the one whose point of view we’re getting and he is, as mentioned, kind of a dick. But not the worst kind of dick. Just your garden-variety dick, who’s run out of patience with his weepy undermedicated girlfriend and knows he could be nicer but isn’t.

And there’s the beauty of the story. Meno manages to compact these people and all their messy ambivalence into a few pages, a couple of brief and aggravating episodes, and illuminate them from inside without ever making them pretty. His depth of field is shallow: They miss a plane, they find a dirty hotel room for the night. Billy buys some fireworks. Two of these are duds, but the third—a paper “monkey with a red fez riding an antique-looking bike”—works. It’s the only beautiful, marvelous thing in the story, and obviously the only beautiful, marvelous thing that’s happened to Billy and Nicole during their five days in Belize:

Billy kneeled and lit the fuse, then hurried away, the small monkey exploding with white fire, shooting across the street, disappearing into a small field, jumping from the ground, and vanishing into the night sky. The girl was surprised, for the first time in a long time maybe, and began clapping, her mouth wide open.

A burst of joy ensues, the story ends, and you just know Billy and Nicole will be back at each other’s throats in another 45 minutes. But that is no concern of ours, and what we’re left with is oddly appealing. This isn’t a train wreck we’re given, but a gleaming little model train set, and watching them harmlessly derail is half the fun. As awful as Billy and Nicole are, they’re not tragic. They’ll get home, they’ll survive. When the missed plane pulls away without them, Nicole says, “I’m already on that plane. I’m flying away from here. I’m gone and never looking back at this terrible place or you ever again.”

You get the feeling Nicole is something of a liar, but this is the one and only true lie she tells in the course of the story. She’s not on that ghost plane, not even in her head, and the reader ends up a whole lot better off for it.

Demons in the Spring is rich in artwork, with a different artist commissioned for each story, and Jon Resh’s illustrations here are extra nice. I would have been quite sad without a picture of the little monkey in the fez.

(Illustrations © Jon Resh.)

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4 Comments to Shorts Pocket Review: “Ghost Plane” by Joe Meno

  1. September 1, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Okay, now I need this book so I can see the monkey.

  2. T. Myers's Gravatar T. Myers
    September 2, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Now I *definitely* need to buy it, because that monkey must live at my house!

  3. September 9, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Lisa — I’m adding this collection to my list. I already have THE GREAT PERHAPS on my to-read, but now the stories have got my attention.

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