Josh Denslow’s book is an examination of the sad, lonely and hopeless. His voice is equal parts funny and galling.
Not Everyone Is Special by Josh Denslow is about sad and lonely people. Denslow is taking universal feelings of hope, despair and longing, and then accenting them with moments of the supernatural. These characters are dealing with problems and situations we’ve all experienced but are additionally layered with fantastical circumstances that no one has a connection to. The juxtaposition for the reader between empathy and fantasy within these situations makes for a hilarious book.
Denslow uses humour so effectively in that he’s not trying to be funny. Instead, he’s seizing upon the moments when they present themselves. That’s what creates these gut-busting spots throughout a book filled with depressed and angry characters. Denslow’s lack of sympathy for these characters coupled with his understanding of what makes them ridiculous is a winning combination. He doesn’t let them get away with anything; and even though many of them are assholes, he shows that they are redeemable. Whether they change or not, he is able to show that every person—regardless of the mistakes they’ve made—is able to choose a different course and become better.
It’s been a while since I’ve laughed out loud while reading a book. Denslow has the rare ability to write humour in such a way that transcends the timing of a joke.
There are a handful of stories in this collection, but two stood out to me:
In the story “Proximity”, a man is trying to break up his mother’s new relationship. She has fallen in love with the bartender at a joint he frequents. He posits that the reason he is trying to break them up is because the guy is an immature asshole, but in the end, it’s clear that he is dealing with his own biases in how he perceives this will affect his relationship with his mother. At the beginning of the story, we find out he can transport. When he was young, it wasn’t something he could control, but with age he learned how to hone the skill. As he got older, it also began to become painful and physically draining. As he uses his ability for personal gain, he begins to realise more about himself and he thinks about what jealousy can do to a person. The transportation is an afterthought in the story, and that’s why it’s such a wonderful addition.
“Punch” is about a government-sanctioned program where each citizen gets vouchers to freely punch two people each year. Once their punch cards are gone, an assault carries a weighty prison sentence. Denslow doesn’t slow down to explain any of the mechanics—he reveals the details while the action of the story takes place. He is trusting the reader to figure it out as it moves along, and I appreciate this move because, the moment the idea clicked, I found the whole thing so entertaining and funny. Had he explained the premise, the humour would have been lost. This is a story about a man dealing with the death of his best friend, but also coming to terms with his ex-wife’s new relationship. His dead friend willed his two punch cards to him and, because of this, he is brought into an illegal punch syndicate. The story becomes stranger and stranger, but at its core it’s about a man who wants to punch someone for not being good enough for the woman he loves. This story isn’t about punching people, it’s about taking control of your life and living with integrity. Even if that means punching some people.
It’s been a while since I’ve laughed out loud while reading a book. My wife and I talked about how when funny people write books it’s hard to translate their humour. Sure, I enjoy Marc Maron’s books, but I’m not cackling while I read them. Stand-up comedy relies on timing and silences in a routine, which is what helps buffer the comedy into being effective. Josh Denslow has the rare ability to write humour in such a way that transcends the timing of a joke. Not Everyone Is Special is an example on how to write a funny book, and it’s by not trying to write a funny book. It sounds contradictory, but it’s something I think Denslow has a solid grasp on, and we could learn a thing or two from him.