Little Red Riding Hood, Dick Tracy, Popeye the Sailor Man ... don't let the characters fool you. Big Lonesome isn't written for kids, at least not for the pasteurized milk-fed children of the Disney generations.
In Jim Ruland's collection of stories published by cool upstart Gorsky Press, Red hauls a sack of rotten apples through Nazi Germany to a grandmother who shelters war deserters. Dick Tracy has grown fat and overly fond of Scotch -- and he's retired to the moon! Popeye, seen through the loathing eyes of one of Sweet Pea's unacknowledged half-siblings, is revealed as a foul spinach stew of Joseph Conrad's Kurtz, Beowulf and all the vices you'd expect from a merchant marine.
Not all of the stories feature fallen fairy tales or sinister comic strip characters. Ruland gives his special twist to westerns, a stalker story, a tale of bomb anarchists, and a couple of mobster stories. Oddly, it's that last category -- where you would expect a gruesome story -- into which Ruland introduces unexpected light. He sets "Pronto's Persistence" in sunny St. Petersburg, Fla., placing plucky Johnny Pronto in the service of Sal Dalimante, a mobster who (maybe) was good friends with the late Salvador Dali and who owns, among other fronts, a place called Sal's Deli. Surreal, indeed.
In the resurgence of infantilizing ideologues who lately have been crusading to protect us all from naughty words and errant nipples "for the sake of the children," I guess juxtapositions like Ruland's seem outrageously aberrant. (And I haven't even told you about the boy who steals his sister's brains.) But in the literary long view, they're really not so unusual. The brothers Grimm collected quite the body count, Roald Dahl populated the parental realm with sadists and never shrank from offing a young brat. Lately, Tim Burton (sometimes in posthumous partnership with Dahl) and Lemony Snickett have cut our cultural sugar with bitters and lemon.
I'm going to stop short of recommending this book for your young ones, but for you grown-ups who don't shy away from what I propose we call "blood in the diaper" stories, Ruland's strange mixtures are bracing.
Big Lonesome by Jim Ruland. $11.95. Gorsky Press. 189 pages.