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The Philosopher Stories by Jerry Levy

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

Jerry Levy is a writer whose work I have followed for some time and have known for at least a decade. I believe I have read most of his work, from his first and second short story collections, Urban Legend and The Quantum Theory of Love and Madness, to the short stories I edited in The Marginal Ride Anthology, and the forthcoming Green to Grey Anthology. Jerry is also a regular reviewer for the Ottawa Review of Books. So, yes, I am quite familiar with Jerry's work and may have a personal bias in favour of it and its author. That aside, I can say without reservation that his latest literary effort, The Philosopher Stories, both solidifies his writing style and surpasses all of his previous work. While many writers excel at developing their protagonists into superheroes capable of saving the world, others opt for inherently flawed but relatable characters, and still others opt for loathsome anti-heroes, Jerry will have none of that. Karl Pringle, his protagonist in The Philosopher Stories, breaks the mould by being at once innocent, thieving, gentle, nerdy, and explosive. In many ways, this novel-cum-connected collection of short stories is a prime example of character-driven fiction, an excellent addition to any creative writing curriculum.

The story, or stories, depending on how you look at the book, revolves around the protagonist's ongoing struggle to realize his self-proclaimed genius in a society that has little time for failed academics, antisocial nerds, and hapless lovers. Indeed, Karl Pringle is an outsider. Born to Hungarian Roma immigrants in Toronto, Karl muddles his way through childhood and adolescence, lurching from selective mutism to declaring himself an alien from the distant Pleiades galaxy to immersing himself in comic books, and finally, to embracing philosophy as a way to achieve his Übermensch ambitions. His caring mother is his world, his protector, and even, in a roundabout way, his procuress. When she dies, that is pretty much it for meaningful human connection.

As an adult, Karl pursues a Ph.D. in philosophy until one put-down too many ignites his explosive personality and he is kicked out of university. Directionless, he devotes himself to learning how not to be an adult: how to avoid personal responsibility and survive by scamming and living off the system. When short on cash, he panhandles with signs lamenting the death of his girlfriend. He raids the town's small free libraries to set up a used book sale, ostensibly for charity, and then uses the proceeds to buy a laptop and printer off the back of a truck. A subsequent visit from the local police deprives him of his ill-gotten gains. He “vacations” in the countryside, living in a cave and stealing chickens from a local farm, and briefly redeems himself by rescuing a starving dog. And he appropriates the unpublished manuscripts of a dead junkie friend to become a mid-level published writer for a while, but even that backfires when his treasure trove of stolen prose turns out to be nothing more than the junkie's verbatim transcribing of other people's published short stories.

Deep down, Karl knows he is better than a social loser, and maybe he is. Occasionally, through all his lies and philosophical musings, he attracts the affection of others, most notably a beautiful French girl, Solange. Levy's skill as a writer is on full display when he almost convinces the reader that Karl will turn his life around and find love and happiness. And then... Well, to say more would be a spoiler, wouldn't it?

If the wild and weird, the intersection of self-delusion, deceit and pathos is your thing, then a journey through The Philosopher Stories is one well spent. For me, it was a two-sitting read, and in its quiet way, the stories kept me in suspense and, for a while, rooting for the feckless Karl Pringle.

The Philosopher Stories is published by Guernica Editions.


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