The Crawford County Sketchbook, Tom Janikowski
Red Hen Press, 2015
Reviewed by Julie Demoff-Larson
The cover of Tom Janikowski’s first full length novel in shorts, The Crawford County Sketchbook, is a telltale sign of the rural, down-home weirdness you will find inside. Written in three main sections, with the first offering 36 flash pieces and the last two written as short novellas, TCCS explores a rural community and the people who make it unusual, dark, and superbly human. There is a strong Southern Gothic feel to Janikowski’s work, yet there is a very Midwestern familiarity to his work.
In the first section, Janikowski begins with an obituary for Mr. Peter Switchback, Jr.; however, it is the “Prelude” that directs the flow of the collection and adds to the history and attitudes of Crawford County. The narrator in this section weaves in and out of stories, but Janikowski’s variations of POV and voice add depth to the collection as a whole. Each piece is its own entity but adds to the overall sense of place and time. Descriptions are vivid and detailed, keeping the reader immersed in his world. This little ditty in “Critique” seems to sum up the feeling Janikowski is going for:
“The sons and daughters of Crawford County always had stringy bits of fried chicken in their teeth and patchy grease stains on the fronts of the shirts—grease stains where the little bits of biscuit landed and rested undetected until well after lunch and then were brushed away absentmindedly while sipping our sweet tea and looking out over the corn and pea fields.”
Interesting abrupt changes in narration are a stand out. The writing becomes more personal at times and sometimes a bit judgmental; however, this does not take away from the narrative, but adds to the attitude of Crawford County. In “Propaganda Due,” Sid beats another boy to death in which the reader senses the character is unaffected by his actions. Here we find the change in the narrators tone, guiding Sid with a patronizing voice.
“Out of the water, Sid. Wring out you trousers. Find your shoes that you kicked off underwater. Get dressed. Stumble back to the clearing near the gravel road that heads back to town. Laugh at your luck. Laugh at fate. Laugh at the kid lying face down on a brick pile. Curse the people responsible for it. Kid yourself.”
As the story wraps up, it is revealed that Sid is actually scared shitless. Janikowski shows great control in his writing, revealing just enough at the just right time.
But I think my favorite element of Janikowski’s style is how at times clusters of sentences connect in a paragraph by using specific words throughout. It is as if he is experimenting with language or using poetic forms such as the villanelle that create a rhythm to his story or a layered effect that seems to be a trademark of his. “Partridge” has a fine example at the start of the story:
“Crescent coffee and crescent moon. There was always that Butter Nut Coffee to drink in the old house. In the old house up on the hill where I used to be a child until I was a man. Butter Nut Coffee and a piece of that cornbread I used to love when I was child until I became a man.”
The Crawford County Sketchbook is a must read for all of those fans of Southern Gothic, great storylines, nostalgia, and a tinge of weirdness. From Peter Switchback’s obituary at the beginning and on the final page of “A Switchback Tale,” there is a profound inheritance of legacy present not by Peter Switchback but from the community as a whole. Tom Janikowski has given us some fine damn writing and a world to laugh, cry, and reflect on.