I worked in a small insurance brokerage office for about two and a half years. Raise your hand if answering phones and talking to panicked or angry people about their health insurance sounds like fun.
Yeah. I thought not.
It gets old really fast. So when I stumbled across Max, a call center worker who’s in desperate need of a change of pace (and a day without being yelled at over the phone), I knew I’d found a character I could identify with.
Max is the main character from Battle for the Row by Ryan J. Penland, a fun short story full of action, humor, and nerd references. It’s like the story was made just for us Constant Collectible geeks.
Max has been feeling a bit meh lately. Wanting a break from his stressful job, he takes a trip to Monterey Pines to meet up with his college friend, Eddie. At the very least he’s searching for a reprieve from angry phone calls. But what he’s really in need of is a change of pace: Something that will help him shake the feeling that he’s stuck in a massive, unending rut.
The plan? To hang out with Eddie and try to revisit some of his favorite childhood haunts. Namely, the legendary arcade he used to visit frequently as a kid.
But nothing seems to be turning out the way it should. The arcade no longer exists. And the entire town has a weird Twilight-zone vibe going on that’s somehow connected to the giant statue of Steinbeck on Cannery Row.
It would seem that Max has found the excitement he has looking for, but it’s not at all in any form he could have expected.
If you’re reading this, you are probably a bit of a nerd. Which is awesome. We at Constant Collectible love nerds because we are nerds. And, after reading Battle for the Row, I think it’s safe to say the exact same thing about Penland. This short story was chock full of great nerd references and humor. It had a Twilight Zone/Doctor Who vibe that I loved: I had a constant grin on my face as I read.
From mentions of Escape From New York to nods to Doctor Who, Terminator, the Twilight Zone, and Cannery Row, Battle for the Row was nerdiness times 12. Not only was the writing brimming with references, but the main characters themselves were lovable geeks.
I found myself especially enjoyed Max’s character. Though this story did have a lot of humor and though Max was a funny character, he also brought a good amount of depth to the plot. Here’s a character who wants something more: He remembers the good times from his childhood, but can’t quite recapture the feeling. He suspects that life is passing him by and he doesn’t want to let that happen. It’s a good theme and one that was very subtly woven in with the rest of the story. It takes a very clever author to pull of both humor and meaning, so let’s have a massive round of applause for the gloriousness of Penland.
The only issue I had with this story was that sometimes the writing style felt a bit stiff. There was some telling of surroundings, backstory, and emotion that perhaps should have been shown rather than told to us. However, this is not the type of story that relies on mechanics: It’s strength comes from the characters and the plot and the overall fun tone. Which is why it was a problem that was quickly overcome by the great mood of the story.
Battle for the Row is Penland’s first publication and I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that there will be more coming soon. I loved the cleverness and geekiness of the story as well as the themes of nostalgia and a desire for more out of life. This story had so much to offer in it’s short 24 pages. I recommend it to fans of action, nerd references, and humor, as well as to lovers of stories with an 80’s scifi/Twilight-zone kind of vibe.
Have you read this short story? Well, why not? Go check it out and come back and tell me what you think!