Kevin Sampsell's Beautiful Blemish: A Case Study



Kevin Sampsell: Beautiful Blemish

Beautiful Blemish 

by Kevin Sampsell 

(Word Riot Press)


Available from Word Riot or Powell's



In the first story of Kevin Sampsell’s new collection Beautiful Blemish, a man collects lost or discarded gloves. He tries to find homes for the used gloves, either by finding its match, the rightful owner, or even by donating them to amputees. Even though this is one of the few stories told in 3rd person, this lost glove collector is Kevin Sampsell and this is what he does: He finds matches for the misfits and freaks of the world, and gives them accommodating places in his stories. He is a shepherd of misfortune and imperfections. In Old Man, Sampsell takes in an old homeless man as a pet. By doing these things, he pares human behavior down to basic animal instinct. He causes us to take a step back and question the practices of contemporary human culture. The things that might make perfect sense or that we take for granted, like having pets, or letting our elders live homeless, suddenly don’t make sense, and the things that initially don’t make a lot of sense, like “getting drunk to save your marriage” suddenly make perfect sense.

… at least in Kevin Sampsell’s world, specifically Portland, Oregon, where most of the stories seem to be set. Maybe this collection had special appeal to me, being that I am originally from Portland, and am of the same generation as Sampsell. I left Portland when I was 12 and never really looked back, so in a way, Sampsell’s stories represent an alternate life I possibly could’ve had if I had remained. And isn’t this what writers are supposed to do—create lives that you can live vicariously? I actually took a trip to Portland last month, though coincidentally Sampsell happened to be in NYC giving a reading so I never got to meet him. I stopped into Powell’s Books anyway to see if the legend was true, and it is—an entire city block of books that Sampsell calls home. This was not at all the Portland I remembered. Back then in the late 70s you just didn’t venture into the city. We all lived in the suburbs. By the 5th grade we were all smoking pot, vandalizing, shoplifting, stealing our parent’s liquor, and feeling compelled to have sex before even going through puberty. That’s just what we did, that was the norm. It wasn’t until I left Portland (for sunnier Mexico) that I realized this was strange behavior for kids. Now, as Sampsell has corroborated, Portland is full of these dysfunctional kids that have never grown up and are stuck in various jaded states of arrested development. All the girls have become Suicide Girls. Yes, they all have tattoos, piercings and Betty Boop haircuts, wear mismatched thrift store clothes, work in coffee shops by day and strip clubs by night, and if you are willing to look carefully, each one has some sort of unique and beautiful blemish—maybe they are missing an eye or a leg, have varicose veins, or are “soft, large girls with divided breasts.” The man that obsessively court them have crooked or undersized penises, herpes sores or fetishes for ear holes or pantyhose. Somehow we find ourselves taking an interest in these characters in the same way you might be endeared by Robert Downey Jr. or Dee Dee Ramone. Sampsell helps us to realize that the unblemished ones that look perfectly normal on the outside are the ones we need to watch out for.

Sampsell’s approach is scientific, rooted in acute observation of his real world subjects. He is a master of painting these blemished people, of accentuating moles to beauty marks, of finding inspiration in people’s imperfections or contradictions. The stories are rife with 30-something year old adults still grappling with adolescence, at parties, at malls, karaoke bars or dance night at Red Lion Inn. Sure these Diane Arbus-esque characters and places might seem mundane and too familiar for some, but Sampsell has the ability to make the ordinary seem extraordinary or relevant. As he reveals through his narrative in On Your Bed, “I tried to be honest, but creative. I tried to think of an abstract sort of truth.” And Sampsell might stand on the shoulders of Ray Carver or Gus Van Sant, but both have moved on leaving Sampsell the burden of helping to carry this Pacific Northwest torch in a post-grunge era.

Maybe it was just me, but I thought the first half of the collection was much stronger than the second. His stories usually teeter between literature and smutty pulp (which is refreshing), but the second half seemed weighted towards the latter. And even though a passage from the title story was good enough to be nominated for’s Henry Miller Award, to me it seemed gratuitously raunchy, and one of the weaker links of the collection. When he is being literary, his warped perversions are reminiscent of Gary Lutz, and his absurd concoctions reminiscent of Stacey Richter. But always, Sampsell is readable and funny. Again, revealing his own process through a narrative from Personal, “I have this funny thing I do when I’m lying. I laugh.” Sampsell will have you doubled over laughing one second, and then crying in the next paragraph (then again, I cried at the end of Short Circuit II). At times, his writing also might seem fragmented or blemished, lacking a cohesive thread, with short dreamy vignettes or character studies mixed with longer fictions that are not always consistent in style and tone—but this only goes to further his purpose, and after all, isn’t this life? By remaining rough around the edges and not taking himself too seriously, he remains true to his word and more believable. His familiar accounts of the lonely-hearted make you feel less alone. And when you are at least expecting it, you’ll get hit with a passage like this one from New Suburban Lit:

I was at a party with my wife and some friends. We were on an outdoor patio and there was a gathering of snakes on the hillside just underneath the patio. We leaned over the railing and watched the snakes slither against each other as we drank. We chatted and laughed at each other’s jokes. Every few minutes we would get silent and watch the snakes. We began to realize there were too many snakes.

Other personal favorites of mine (maybe because my father worked as an insurance salesman in the very mall where the story takes place) included, Skip the Walker, in which the narrator, Carol, is stalked by a creepy old mall walker who ends up seducing her mother. Freaky as it all is (think Cocoon but even creepier), you can’t help but to get sucked in, “he offered his arm and as if in a sudden trance I grab inside his elbow and feel myself being pulled into the suddenly large swarm of mall walkers” (at which point a combination of all the matching sweatsuits, the muzak and fast food chains and Christian Supply Centers cause her to go into a seizure and wake up in a Chick Filet staring at a manager with a name tag). His writing style is convincing enough that you physically feel sick when the characters get sick, or you work up a sweat when the characters do.

But the most beautiful blemish for me was Blowjob, and not so much for the details of the “blowjob from hell” (of which none are provided), but where the blowjob takes place (a cemetery) and the anti-climatic aftermath (as he backs the car out of the cemetery he runs over and gets stuck on a few tombstones), ending with, “we looked back at the dark landscape, with all its concrete teeth sticking up and poking out of the ground. The ground so dug-up and reapplied.”

Sampsell’s Beautiful Blemish is just that.

--Derek White


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© 2005 by Derek White