FULL DISCLOSURE: I HUNG OUT IN REAL LIFE with Sean Beaudoin once. It was August, 2014, on the edge of SoHo, a bar called Botanica, East Houston, near Broadway. We drank beer, Sean and I, but not enough to lose focus, not enough to time travel. I’d read and loved his stuff at the Weeklings, knew he was much published; we’d emailed, and I’d seen his photo, sized up his avatar. Like you do.
I went in thinking he’d be antic and loud, rapid-fire punk erudition and edge, like that manic fever of an essay about Zen Arcade. (It almost made me like Zen Arcade. Almost made me love it.) But no. Even when pretty women joined us, and cool music played, and the summer breeze blew Manhattan diesel through the door, he didn’t amp up the intensity. He laughed easy, but did not strut, vocally or otherwise. I thought maybe he was jet lagged, this Pacific Northwest dude. Maybe I was hoping he was.
Now, after reading his exquisite short story collection, Welcome Thieves (Algonquin), I’d wager Sean was watching. Perhaps on a sub-aware level, he was clocking detail and undertone in the way most people do only under extreme duress, like in the elongated milliseconds of a car accident or a mugging. My guess is he couldn’t help it. He can’t help it. That super speed observation streams through a lens crystalline and funhouse, tinted and fisheye, strobe and lava lamp; lucky for him, for us, hell, for his loved ones, he possesses the ability to distill his impressions into distinctive prose. Otherwise, I feel sure he’d be dead. Maybe not in a grave, but dead, burnt from within by the heat of pure moments.
But I didn’t really know any of that then. I knew he was a great wordsmith, and yeah, on bad days sometimes that was a pain in the ass, but I didn’t know how great he was until just now, with this handsome tome, Welcome Thieves. Sean’s sentences, like chords somehow both hardcore and lush, baroquely clustered and overdriven, hum now in the analog world, on actual pages in an actual book that I’ve alternately wanted to hug to my bosom and/or hurl into the wood stove. But mostly the former, as today is a good day. (It’s not his first book, but it’s his first collection of short stories under the algorithm “Dark Humor,” instead of “YA.”)
Come to think of it, I did get a clue to his full-on badassery when, back in NYC, we ambled from Botanica to Housing Works bookstore. With some fellow Weeklings, we were in the city to read our work on a stage, to a pretty good crowd. I did my thing, then watched as Sean loped the boards in a blazer, calm as a freshly-laid lead singer. Even before he spoke, I thought: he will slay. And slay he did, with the short story You Too Can Graduate in Three Years with a Degree in Contextual Semiotics.
Be advised: Algonquin Press had the good sense to publish this story, alongside eleven other rough cut gems, in Welcome Thieves.
Perhaps there’s a word in another language – some Indo-European strain, I’m guessing, unmitigated by vowels – encompassing both depressed and exhilarated, inspired and dismayed. That’s what I felt, and then some. The story is an artfully compressed history of a wayward guy; it’s got amour fou, a travelogue, lots of brutal laughs. But also, somehow, it’s tender in the seams, intimate, voiced like a conscience.
He’s unloading this thing and I’m listening, watching, and, in snatches of clarity, I’m all: This fucking thing is a directive. It should not work. Paragraphs like:
Volunteer to serve food to the homeless on weekends. Roll dirty soup pots across dirty parking lots. Secretly hate the hippie in charge, who bitches through his red beard and stew-dripped sandals, who yells at feral Rastas and drunken runaways for not recycling their spoons.
He killed with that shit.
Now, a year and a half later: Welcome Thieves. I was reading, didn’t know You Too Can Graduate was coming. I’d actually forgotten the (not stellar, sorry) title. I recalled his performance, specifically a piercing line about fucking in the kitchen then wishing you hadn’t (resulting in one of those he’s reading my mail moments). But the title, no, I did not recall. It’s not supposed to be easily remembered. Sean wants you to love the tunes, but does not want you to be able to hum them until you’ve hung out with him in the sacred space for more than a little while.
In any event, I was happily sitting on the passenger side as Sean motored me through sensory smorgasbords of boy-men wrangling music from life and vice versa (Nick in Nine (9) Movements); blown-out knees, lips on scars, Mingus playing as strangers make their way across a futon (the hilarious, sad, sexy The Rescues); a dad-to-be lured to a precipice by lust and melancholy (Hey Monkey Chow); and a fully realized psychic punk pixie on a adorably nihilistic misadventure (D.C. Metro). Then came You Too Can Graduate, reigniting that first glimmer, back there in SoHo, that dawning realization I was rubbing elbows with the real deal.
On occasion, in Welcome Thieves, you do not know what the fuck Sean is on about, yet the words evoke an emotional response, like music, like an oblique song all the more powerful for its elliptical nature. Are we in a post apocalypse in All Dreams Are Night Dreams, a Road Warrior-esque vista on which thespian acrobats perform and cast spells, draw blood, and betray one another with glee? Amazingly, it doesn’t really matter. Even when the scenes are otherworldly, or heavily stylized – the futuristic Base Omega Has Twelve Dictates – the characters resonate, the stories transport. Time changes.
When story works – as it does in Welcome Thieves – it’s a win-win. Win-wins, I offer, are most common in art. I.e.: Sean needs to get these stories into the world, lest he implode. You can tell. They practically reek of burnt ozone, of space debris hot from freefall. While purging himself, he illuminates in his reader the unseen, casting light in corners we did not even know were there, lighting up levels of feeling we either forgot about or never knew existed. And, crucially, under Sean’s hyper-alert gaze, all are beautiful.