Rock Manning Goes for Broke: A strange and original tale by a brilliant writer

Rock Manning Goes for Broke by Charlie Jane AndersRock Manning Goes for Broke by Charlie Jane Anders

Rock Manning Goes for Broke by Charlie Jane AndersThe thing I loved the most about Rock Manning Goes for Broke, the 2018 novella by Charlie Jane Anders, is the narrative voce of Rock himself. Here are the opening lines:

Earliest I remember, Daddy threw me off the roof of our split-level house. “Boy’s gotta learn to fall sometime,” he told my mom just before he slung my pants seat and let me go.

That’s the flavor of this brief, fast-paced, action-packed dystopian, heroic dark comedy and kinda-love story.

Dad is not a psycho, or maybe he is, but he is also a stuntman, teaching his sons the trade. Rock gets older and enters school, where his class-clown antics bring him to the attention of the school bully, and also to the new girl Sally, who wants to make films. We learn in bits and pieces that the American society around Rock and his school mates is crumbling, and there is something ominous in his older brother’s careful preparation for joining the army, but mostly we follow Sally and Rock and they make daredevil films for the internet (and Rock dodges the bully, Ricky).

Soon Sally and Rock, who are famous for their short internet films, finish school. Ricky and his gang, with their red bandanas, become official enforcers for a corrupt and vicious government. Their bullying is not only condoned, it’s rewarded. Rock gets a job in a convenience store and nurses his apparently unrequited crush on Sally while things careen from worse to worst, and then there is a global catastrophe, the discharge of an experimental weapon, that literally changes everything in the world. I thought this was well foreshadowed and startlingly original.

For the first two-thirds of this 120-page story, our narrator rockets along (“I was kind of a hyper kid,” he drops as an aside, once) as Rock makes his films and tries to avoid Ricky. Rock Manning Goes for Broke slows down post-catastrophe, and one of the best parts in the story is when Rock goes back to the convenience store. He opens it up. He says that he only does it to have something to do, but soon people come in and he begins selling water, food and essentials. People thank him for giving them an alternative to looting. This could be a sentimental and unbelievable moment, but it isn’t, it’s authentic, because by now we believe that Rock is this kind of a decent guy. And we know the quiet moment won’t last.

The final passages are a tour-de-force of chase scenes, and the story ends the way stories of rebels who challenge corrupt power structures often end. This is not to say that there isn’t hope. The final text from Sally to Rock gives hope to the badly damaged world they live in.

As you all know, I’m stingy with 5-star reviews. This garners one because the writer attempted stylistic and structural gymnastics, and delivered completely on that attempt. The narrative voice carries a story that covers several years and in a more traditional narrative would run hundreds of pages. We never know the details here, but we know what happened.

Rock Manning Goes for Broke is a strange little tale, but it’s compelling. Anders has a genuine gift for finding currents in popular culture and using them to tell larger tales about responsibility, community and courage. She does it well here, and (pardon the paradox) worked so hard to develop both this story and the narrative voice that it seems like she didn’t work at all — Rock’s monologue (that’s basically what the story is) seems fluid and effortless. That’s the mark of a brilliant writer. Rock Manning Goes for Broke is terrifying, dark, sometimes funny and always filled with heart.

Published September 30, 2018. Vikings vs. Steampunks! Ice cream sundae hearse disasters! Roman gladiators meet vacuum-cleaner salesmen! Inappropriate uses of exercise equipment and supermarket trolleys! Unsupervised fires, and reckless destruction of public property! Nothing is off limits. Rock Manning lives and breathes slapstick comedy, and his whole life is an elaborate tribute to the masters, like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Jackie Chan. With his best friend, Sally Hamster, he creates joyfully chaotic short movies that are full of mayhem and silliness. But Rock and Sally are becoming famous at a time of unrest, when America’s economy has collapsed and people are taking refuge in highly addictive drugs. America’s youth are being drafted to take part in endless wars against imaginary enemies overseas, while at home, a fascist militia known as the Red Bandanas is rising to power. As America becomes more mired in violence and destruction, Rock Manning’s zany comedy films become the escapist fun that everybody needs. Over-the-top physical comedy and real-life brutality collide, as Rock and Sally find themselves unable to avoid getting sucked into the slow implosion of their country. The Red Bandanas want Rock Manning to star in propaganda films promoting their movement, and soon Rock and Sally are at the center of the struggle for the soul of America. The trauma and death that Rock witnesses begin to take a toll on him. When a botched weapon test plunges the world into deeper chaos, Rock and Sally must confront once and for all the outer limits of comedy.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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4 comments

  1. So many of the components you mention could have completely unbalanced the narrative, and I’m highly impressed that you think Anders pulled it all together so successfully. Color me intrigued!

  2. She did, in a surprisingly low word count.

  3. I can’t wait to read this.

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