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'Knockout' Scores A Hit With Humanity And Dark Humor

Everybody makes mistakes, but some people manage to turn it into an art form. Take the characters in John Jodzio's new short story collection, Knockout. There's the young man who lets himself be talked into stealing a tiger and selling it for meth. There's the guy who moves into a duplex and discovers, too late, that his new roommate is a sadistic kidnapper. And then there's the woman whose boyfriend talks her into letting him pick up women at a speed-dating event, then tying them up until they give him their ATM codes.

The characters in Jodzio's stories are a long way from respectable. They're junkies, criminals, dealers and liars. They're the type of people who attract contempt, but Jodzio treats them all with humanity and, sometimes, humor. That's hard to pull off, but not only does Jodzio manage to do it, he makes it look easy.

The collection opens with "Great Alcoholic-Owned Bed and Breakfasts of the Eastern Seaboard," about a widowed innkeeper and his young stepson. When a woman shows up to spend the night, claiming to be the author of a travel guide, the B&B owner sees a chance to make a good impression: "I hope she can see what we could become, even though we won't." It's a stunning story about clinging to hope, even when you know it's useless, and it ends with a sad, shocking jolt.

In the title story, a recovering addict helps his friend steal a neglected tiger that they then attempt to trade for drugs. It's a violent, bleak story, but it also showcases Jodzio's gift for black humor. The narrator recounts being shot in the thigh with an arrow by his father, a retired insurance salesman who teaches archery to underprivileged children.

"I remember that he was trying to teach me some lesson about life," the narrator muses. "It must not have been very profound, because I could not remember what it was. All I remembered now was the sound of that arrow entering my thigh. It went ffffffftttt. Maybe that was the only lesson that he was trying to teach me. That an arrow entering into your thigh goes ffffffftttt."

It's difficult to write with emotional honesty about the people on the very edge of society, the misfits among misfits. But even when he writes with humor, Jodzio never treats his characters as a joke.

Jodzio employs that dark humor to great effect in "Duplex," about an unemployed jewelry maker who moves in with a man named Jayhole, an ex-bounty hunter estranged from his teenage daughter ("I heard through the grapevine she's a total bitch ... so no big loss," Jayhole tells his new roommate). Their friendship sours after Jayhole plays a series of bizarre pranks on the narrator, eventually leading him to fear for his life.

While many of the stories in Knockout are quite funny, Jodzio is impressive when he plays it straight. In "Ackerman Is Selling His Sex Chair for Ten Bucks," a man attends a garage sale held by a man who's recently lost his wife (with whom the narrator was having an affair). "He's way too young to have lost a wife, but maybe too old and too sad to look for another one," the narrator says. Despite the unlikely title, it's a sad and surprisingly sweet story about friendship and loss.

In the collection's finest story, "The Indoor Baby," a sevrely agoraphobic woman decides to raise her child entirely indoors — over the objections of her husband, a war veteran who lost both legs to a land mine. "The sun does not keep your baby safe," she tells her husband. "The night sky does not help raise your child. Clean, crisp air does nothing for your baby's well-being."

The story is a breathtaking meditation on what it's like to live in constant fear of losing someone you love, whether the loss is partial or total. The narrator is a deeply sad character, spending her days tending to her husband and their dog and child. "I take care of everyone here, but there is no one to take care of me," she thinks, and the moment is beyond heartbreaking.

And it showcases Jodzio's immense talents perfectly. It's difficult to write with emotional honesty about the people on the very edge of society, the misfits among misfits. But even when he writes with humor, Jodzio never treats his characters as a joke. He's a compassionate writer who is refreshingly unafraid to take risks, and his book is, well, a knockout.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.