For all who know and love Gwyn McAllister — the person and her work — here on the Island, particularly her many articles for the newspaper you’re now perusing, as well as her celebrity status as a playwright with a full production of the G.B. Shaw–inflected rom-com “Passionata” in the summer of 2018 on the M.V. Playhouse stage, we often think of McAllister as a dual citizen of Oak Bluffs and New York City.
So here’s why McAllister sightings are down: Not long ago she sold her house, inherited from her mother, on Samoset Avenue in the gingerbread heart of Oak Bluffs. She then displayed the good sense to turn the deal around and buy property in Manhattan, to wit, in the fabled Theater District. But the McAllister Trust is hardly missing: She still plies the rock, but we share her with that other island wedged between the East and Hudson Rivers.
And how do we count on her being with us? Well, she’s penned a book, hilarious from page one throughout to the very last page which is, let’s see, page 251, with a seriously clever title: “You Can Make This Sh*T Up!” It’s a collection of rollicking short stories, a crop of shorty-short plays, and a handful of — brace yourselves, lol — poems.
Let’s take the poems first, since this reviewer has rarely thought of poetry as humorous. My dad, a former English professor who graduated from the University of Michigan, used to quote on family car rides the stylings of John Milton and Shakespeare’s sonnets, encouraging my own devotion to Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver, among many, many others. But along comes Gwyn McAllister with lines such as:
I bought a cat today
I hate him.
I wanted needy.
But it’s her opening section of short stories that lets you know you’re in for a fine and bumpy ride. Well, finely bumpy. Or bumpily fine; in other words, one brief chapter after the next of smoothly worded descriptions that reveal you’re in the company of both a natural humorist and an engaging writer along the lines of a modern-day Mark Twain or P.G. Wodehouse.
And if you know Ms. McAllister, you’ll recognize her salute to her favorite brand of literature, which is true crime. For instance, would you care to walk in the shoes of a Manhattan girl who starts rising in the morning with blood-drenched clothes scattered on her floor from whatever lured her outdoors the night before? And, by the way, this particular tale starts with the line, “Jesus was scratching at my shoulder.” Before you start thinking you’ve stumbled upon musings from a Bible study group, it turns out Jesus is the name of the protagonist’s cat. (Thank the Lord; pun intended.)
From there you’ll find yourself in a modern-day Kafka story about another bedraggled New Yorker single, a woman who wakes up as a cockroach. She finds herself living in her same apartment, only now it seems interminably bigger, in what we now call an “intentional community” of other roaches. Is this a better way of life for her? In other words, do the other bugs accept her, or do they prefer her as their human, a messy human who left heaps of crumbs and delicious leftovers? From there we make the acquaintance of a tenant in a luxury apartment building who receives a drastically reduced rent because, hmmm, because the apartment absolutely stinks, as in reeks, and no amount of Febreze-y cleaners can cause the stench to abate. Maybe you can guess what or who is holed up behind the walls?
Then there’s a psychic czarina from Russia who stares at a client’s hand and renders a spot-on fortune; next a woman who has just delivered a baby in an urban hospital and has as much maternal gumption as a penguin trying to slither over dry land. Check out a woman who influences a man she barely knows into thinking he broke off their engagement and won’t be able to make it stick from a legal point of view, and, finally, a spunky bachelorette who gets engaged to two — yes, two — convicted murderers without learning any sort of a lesson.
McAllister’s collection of shorty-short plays are equally engaging and thought-provoking, with a surprise birthday party for an unknown honoree; a newbie playwright hoping to be accepted into a festival but having no clear-cut idea of what to write or even how to write; a story that starts with a mother asking in a bored voice, “So what do you want for Christmas?” and the little kid answering, “A working kidney would be nice.” Then there’s a plot line about a Broadway musical featuring an understudy who’d benefit from killing off the star (so what understudy wouldn’t?). In “Somewhere in the Bronx,” we meet a man in his 20s named David and a dog named Jeremy. They talk. Another playlet features a chicken crossing the road, along with a cast of other fabled animals featured on the murals in kids’ rooms. Finally, two agents from Homeland Security track down spurious events at a family’s NYC apartment in which Christmas is being celebrated two days late, which in and of itself is suspicious.
From short stories to little plays to poems, you won’t stop chuckling. McAllister says she’d been hoping to produce a bunch of written goodies long ago, and has finally assembled a delirious batch. She found an easygoing publisher who enabled her to have her tetchy way with the project, from the title to the edgy content to her own marketing, such as on the bottom of the cover, a line reading, “The New York Times says — ‘Nope!’”
Look for your copy at Edgartown Books or from the luminous warehouses of Amazon. New markets have opened up, such as a bookstore in St. Mark’s Square in Lower Manhattan, where Gwyn held up a copy and the manager requested more.
So what have we learned? That writing takes time, marketing is perhaps a tad harder, but when it comes to our Ms. McAllister, the reading is the funnest part of all.
“You Can Make This Sh*T Up!” by Gwyn McAllister is available at Edgartown Books, and on Amazon.