The 17th century poet Basho selling a nearly-new lawnmower. Aisle 4 of Mini Bob’s Mart (not Bob’s Mini-Mart). The good fortune of seeing the back of a woman’s sweater as she leaves. An attempt to name the device, “the foot ruler thing,” shoe stores have. A cleaner of Ladies’ and Men’s rooms in three Asheville bars. These are the ensorcellments that McIlvoy’s dice-throwing mind invites us to explore. From “snow-golfing” in “ultramarine Sansabelt slacks” to the odd couple of a homeless but newly-anointed newspaper bundler “Captain” and Bee, the more experienced bundler who anoints him, as they establish their friendship with her purse sitting between them on the city bus, “the zipper closed around the nose of a gun barrel,” 57 Octaves Below Middle C offers a window into unlikely corners of modern life.
Affirming what John Berryman called “the stance of wonder,” these stories, prose poems, and short-shorts are fool’s koans, inside-out riddles in which we get to spend a while, emerging a little older, a little more vulnerable, a little more transformed. Part Muddy Waters and part Russell Edson, with more than a nod to Lydia Davis, Jean Follain, and Henri Michaux, 57 Octaves Below Middle C descends like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince to find the wonderstruck child inside the world-weary adult. Yet this is no work of whimsy or fancy: for all McIlvoy’s verbal riffs and musical interludes, he writes from deep pathos, attempting to peel back the constructed selves we shell about us in our daily lives. He makes us stranger to ourselves so that we can see ourselves again.
From “You want to know—,” from 57 Octaves Below Middle C:
—why I hate you.
It’s that you no longer let me learn my way over you, my singular chronic harassment, my particular persistent curse. You no longer let me lay my eggs like a louse in your pulse, traveling, unwelcomed, with you everywhere around and also far from this filling station in Extraellaville.
Me, the cause of your tics, dear Jay, the mite skating over your eyemeat, blade-blade – glide-blade-blade.
It’s a wonder I never came off in the wash or here at our workplace or from your unnatural hairpiece. Have I ever mentioned this: how I hated nothing about you – not the back rash, not the butt lint, not the rubber-black rug riding low on your forehead? As if you could cover what had recessed and recessed and been replaced by bald folds (practically flaps) of something I never once saw as ugliness.
Buy a ball cap, would you?
“…This is a whole new landscape—both inner and outer—and only a writer as attentive to language as McIlvoy could bring such a book into the world…this is a miraculous collection….” — Laura Kasischke
“McIlvoy’s latest book sings strange songs of belonging—a man who collects lawnmowers (‘I need to mow. I needed the right mower. Many of us do’) encounters a lawnmower cult whose leader speaks entirely in haiku; another who turns doglike when suffering from migraines (the headaches are named ‘Miss Luck’ but also ‘Death’s substitute teacher with no syllabus’) meets a pack of men who endure the same transformation; a brother and sister bond over their shared love of duct tape. Hovering between prose and poetry, the linked pieces in 57 Octaves Below Middle C are marvelously peopled with characters you’ve never seen before and full of tragicomic insight (‘I was an extraneous adverb when my father, the verb of the family, died’).” — Matthea Harvey
“As if Blind Willie Johnson had stumbled through Alice’s looking glass, 57 Octaves Below Middle C offers a thrilling mash-up of the soulfully executed blues riff and the wondrously weird. In McIlvoy’s latest, beneath the artistry and the melody, the hilarity, the poetry, beneath every note (and all the octaves) in this extended ballad of precisely inflected narratives, is a cri de coeur. A tour de force!” — Karen Brennan
“…These stories could be read in an hour, but to understand them, the reader should stop after each one, for the express purpose of thinking. Or rather, dreaming, for they are rather like dreams, these curiously tilted, somewhat wacky, often startling small stories. I recommend them to anyone who wants to visit new worlds.” Read the full review here.