Review: Bosses of Light and Sound by Nickalus Rupert

Willow Springs Books, 2020

Paperback, 180 pages, $21.95


Rupert cover


If short story collections had singles, the chart-topper in Nickalus Rupert’s debut collection, Bosses of Light and Sound, winner of the 2019 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, would be the deliciously irreverent “Aunt Job,” which depicts an alternate reality in which coming-of-age rituals like bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras have been replaced with aunts initiating their teenage nephews into manhood with a hand job. As the father of the story explains to his appalled pubescent son: “Aunts have become a kind of sexual starter kit . . . It’s the way of things.” And yet Rupert’s charm as a storyteller is that he’s never satisfied with one idea (however perverse that idea may be!). Instead, Rupert’s stories are jammed full of dazzling turns and inventive world-building. In this way, Rupert’s stories resemble Donald Barthelme’s self-described “slumgullions”—the narrative equivalent of well-stirred and savory stews.


The title story serves as the perfect aperitif to whet the reader’s appetite. In “Bosses of Light and Sound,” a nostalgic movie projectionist takes the reader through a director’s cut of his youthful pranks and lost love, recollecting summer nights spent editing and manipulating Hollywood films to the chagrin of unsuspecting moviegoers—splicing Daniel Day Lewis into Finding Nemo, inserting pirates into dystopian sci-fi films, etc.—all while struggling to translate this mastery of light and sound to life outside the projectionist’s booth. In “Hale in the Deep,” a prolifically divorced protagonist, haunted by his innumerable marital failures, is lured by the promise of a late-night infomercial that offers him an array of sci-fi gadgetry to “de-member” all the painful and awkward gaffes of his past. In “Oh, Harmonious,” a chain-smoking and exasperated Mother Nature descends to a local gymnasium to hold a press conference and announce her retirement. In “The Temptation of Saint Ravine,” a fame-flirting recluse—known for talking locals out of committing suicide in his plummet-friendly backyard—strikes up a friendship with a troubled teen, all while a rogue mountain lion stalks the premises.


Frankly, it’s Rupert’s brain-candy sentences that are the real treat of this collection. The pages of Bosses of Light and Sound resound with “combinatorial delight” (to borrow a phrase from Nabokov). Rupert’s language is adept at shifting tones and offering a double-barreled wallop. In the flash piece titled “If the River Drops,” the fatal rocks of a whitewater rafting resort are imbued with dental-mythic registers: “molars from the mouths of giants.” In a nostalgic ghost story titled “Deadman’s Island,” the sunset is staged as “a flashlight aimed through pink Jell-O.” It’s hard not to think of the linguistic felicity of a writer like Jim Shephard while reading through Rupert’s collection: both share a knack for defibrillating the world with a charged turn of phrase.


Throughout Bosses of Light and Sound, Rupert dramatizes the friction of hope rubbing against the bristles of reality. Underneath the comic and off-kilter veneer of many of these stories is the aching of lost souls and foreclosed hearts. As the disillusioned protagonist of the story “Jewels of Mt. Stanley” claims, “Hell of a thing, belief. Like spraying yourself with OFF! before entering sharky waters.” And yet, the prospect of certain doom never quite prevents Rupert’s characters from cannonballing into the ocean of belief, aspiring in spite of expiring.


There’s an admirable messiness to Rupert’s stories—characters botch epiphanies, flirt with gravity, taunt passersby to pelt them with tomatoes, and unleash their inner spirit animal (in this case, a howler monkey) to mixed avail. Each story encourages a redrawing of simple maps, a recharting of the twined territories of yearning and despair. In the world of Bosses of Light and Sound, relationships might end, but there’s always the possibility “the universe might cobble together a second chance—a redo”—to quote the story “Bonus Round.” And perhaps that is the secret charm of Rupert’s collection. The hearts in these stories are simultaneously spiking and flatlining, suspended in cardiac superposition. The closer we look through Rupert’s narrative microscope, the fuzzier and more fascinating our lives become.