Nebraska Center for Writers

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About Brent Spencer


Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son's Search for His Father
Copyright © 2011
by Brent Spencer
The Backwaters Press

When the salvage crew finally arrived, they found the dead man and a half-sunken sailboat overflowing with receipts, journal pages, letters, lists, school notes, decrees, certificates — a lifetimeís accumulation of paper. Later, the womanís body would be found, a fiancťe no one in the family had known about. Brent Spencerís father died as mysteriously as he had lived. Armed only with the soggy scraps of his fatherís life, Spencer began a two-thousand-mile search for the man he never really knew. Rattlesnake Daddy is the account of that journey — a powerful, heartfelt, and often funny meditation on the bonds that unite and the boundaries that divide all fathers and sons. — from the publisher

Powerful and moving. Spencer writes like a bruised angel. — Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World and Writing the Sacred Into the Real

Brent Spencerís Rattlesnake Daddy paints a wonderfully vivid portrait of a chaotic, colorful, venomous man who was the authorís absent father. — Dinty Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire and The Accidental Buddhist

"A father is the mystery his son never solves,Ē Spencer writes. But in this haunted and haunting memoir/detective story, he comes as close as he can without actually crawling into his fatherís rattlesnake skin. — Robin Hemley, author of Do-Over! and Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness

Rattlesnake Daddy is unforgettable for its clear-sighted contemplation of the sins of the father, and in their wake, the complicated yearnings of the son. — Lee Martin, author of From Our House and The Bright Forever

Rattlesnake Daddy is amazing. Alternately horrifying, funny, analytical, and heart-wrenching, it skillfully and affectingly tells a father-son story like none I've ever encountered: of a cruel and menacing psychopath who managed to seem not just sane but admirable, and of a son who overcame endless varieties of torture to write this stunning memoir of good riddance. Out of what Brent Spencer calls his father's "catalogue of mysteries," he has crafted a literary form of exorcism that is nothing less than a masterpiece. — Ron Hansen, author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Exiles

A brilliant, sometimes funny, travel memoir. Spencer is precise, insightful, and incisive. — Kirk Zebolsky,

Are We Not Men ?
Copyright © 1996
by Brent Spencer
Arcade Publishing

"The defining moment of your life isn't even from your life. It's from the movies. But then, your whole life has never been more than a string of B-movie moments, so what's the difference?"
So begins Brent Spencer's Are We Not Men?, which Carol Muske Dukes calls "one of the most hilarious, bittersweet, and brilliant collections of stories to come up the fiction pike in years."
The B movie in the title story is the 1932 classic Island of Lost Souls. Charles Laughton plays a sadistic scientist whose experiments in the House of Pain have turned a tropical island's wild animals into a tribe of beast-men. Laughton tries to strengthen his piteous creations' tenuous grip on humanity by leading them in pep rallies. Their eyes frantic with a hunger for conviction and approbation, the beast-men repeat the refrain, "ARE WE NOT MEN? ARE WE NOT MEN?" You don't know if you should laugh or cry.
Spencer's stories make you do both. In a review of his first novel, The Lost Son, Kirkus declared Spencer "achieves what most debut writers merely attempt: He gives personal experience universal meaning and makes small-town tragedy profound." Whether the setting is a failing farm, a prison yard, a leaky apartment complex, or an overflowing canal in Venice, these thirteen stories offer the full range of Spencer's gifts, establishing him as a master of the form and one of our finest comic writers. No one else could make a B movie not only profound, but profoundly, achingly funny.
All of Spencer's characters painstakingly construct their own Houses of Pain. Yearning for conviction and approbation, seeking the defining moments of their lives, they are "victims and perpetrators of a patriarchy in flux," as Marly Swick describes them. A few stories echo The Lost Son in their devastating yet redemptive depiction of blue-collar angst; others are exotic, urban, even urbane. What they share is Spencer's ability to make us care passionately about men and women fumbling with their self-delusions and self-discoveries, lost souls learning to do the best they can with the beast within." — from the jacket

Enter at your own risk — Spencer is addictive reading. This collection creates 13 distinct portraits of quintessential America. ... One after another, Spencer's characters negotiate tortuous and comic twists of fate. "At last you love your life," Spencer writes at the end of his first story. His talent is that you also learn to love their lives. — Stanford Magazine

Fictionist Brent Spencer's second book, a collection of short stories titled Are We Not Men?, begins with an epigraph from The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells: "What could it mean? A locked enclosure on a lonely island, a notorious vivisector, and these crippled and disoriented men?" Spencer himself is an extraordinary vivisectionist, dissecting the damage of lives gone astray. ... The stories are filled with loss, but there is a Raymond Carveresque sharpness to them, and they are not without redemption. Across the landscxapoes of Pennsylvania mining towns, Spencer reminds us of the pathos of personal destruction. — The Penn Stater

Brent Spencer writes with heart-breaking compassion and jolly good humor about life at the tail-end of our trashed-out century. He's what you'd get if you crossed Russell Banks with Groucho Marx — tender, intense, and terrifically funny. — Paul Ingram, Prairie Lights Bookstore

Reading Brent Spencer's rich and impressive collection, the reader wonders how one writer in one body could possibly inhabit so many distinct fictional worlds. Few contemporary short story writers can write with such convincing accuracy and depth of feeling about both rural and urban, blue collar and white collar America. These are beautifully realized, painfully funny stories. My heart goes out to this beleaguered, bedeviled motley crew of perpetrators and victims of a patriarchy in flux. These are real men, trying to figure out what real men are. — Marly Swick, author of The Summer Before the Summer of Love and Paper Wings

In the film Island of Lost Souls, Charles Laughton leads Bela Lugosi and the Beast Men in an impromptu pep rally, whose fierce interrogatory refrain is: Are We Not Men? And Brent Spencer (not Robert Bly) answers this question once and for all in one of the most hilarious, bittersweet, and brilliant collections of stories to come up the fiction pike in years. Read it! Embrace it! Are you not readers of whatever gender who wish mightily to be amazed by extraordinary literary talent? — Carol Muske Dukes, author of Dear Digby and Saving St. Germ

"Are we not men?" chant the B-movie creatures who emerge from the mad surgeon's experiments in Island of Lost Souls. To one of Brent Spencer's characters, seeing that classic 1932 film is "the defining moment" of his life. But the half-menacing, half-pathetic query of the beast-men echoes through many of Mr. Spencer's other stories. "I am a man of mild manner," says a group-therapy client whose wife has left him. "But lately I've been a little unwell, a little punk, a little — you know — crazy. Not Patsy Cline crazy. Not thrill-kill crazy. Just crazy crazy." In "Babyman," a convict is transformed by the news that his girlfriend is pregnant. He becomes his cell block's expert on infant care. Even when he finds out that the baby doesn't exist, that the girl- friend has lied to get money from him — even when the beast within him resurfaces in a violent rage — he can't quite abandon his relationship to his imaginary child. Mr. Spencer makes this sort of edgy comedy work in a variety of settings, with both simple and sophisticated characters. And he also makes it clear that despair isn't the only note that can be sounded in these stories of people stitched together by the mad surgery of modern life. — Michael Harris, New York Times Book Review

From its jacket, adorned with taxidermied horns and two shotguns, to its all-male cast of narrators, this collection might seem a celebration of manhood, but most of Spencer's men are too self-aware, too funny, too smitten with love or devastated by its loss to cut out for the wilderness and spend time with the guys. ... Spencer's wit and swift prose cut through the pathos of even his most tragic stories. ... Brent Spencer has crafted this startling collection of epiphanies lost and found from the recycled material of middle-American men, which makes his narrators' shifts in voice from humdrum to revelation all the more alchemical. Not that his cast of characters is ordinary to begin with: one narrator defines his life according to a scene from a '30's B-movie, Island of Lost Souls; another, a convict, starts a newsletter on child rearing and subscribes to Mothers' World; in a waiting room, an insurance salesman watches dark clouds through the window while a woman dozes and he wonders, "How can she do that? It's the most frightening thing I've ever seen. The woman asleep and the weather coming, coming." What links these men is monotony and the chance to disrupt it.
Spencer effortlessly shifts from the pensive to the hilarious, and the missing link between his characters' blindness and insight makes these well-honed tales ample spaces of possibility. The book's title begs the question, but the stories revel in the absence of an answer. — Village Voice

Reverberating with echoes of Raymond Carver, the 13 stories in Spencer's (The Lost Son) first collection chronicle, with rueful wit and a gritty photo-realism, the anger and loneliness of a mostly blue-collar cast of Midwestern men. These tales of degeneration, decay and emasculation are played out in hospitals, prisons, dive bars and seedy apartments, whose inhabitants, trapped in failing or failed relationships, drink to escape or just to avoid intimacy. The dolefully funny, eponymous, lead story, told in second-person vignettes that resemble cinematic dissolves, describes a man who takes refuge in movies (identifying in particular with the beast-men of the 1932 H.G. Wells adaptation, Island of Lost Souls), while his marriage hits the skids. "I flunked Prozac," laments Ned the dyspeptic narrator of "This is the Last of the Nice," who reluctantly enters a men's support group after his wife runs off, but storms out in a fit of anger and self-pity. Anger and frustration in these stories are often diverted and re-expressed in ugly ways, as in "Haven't You Ever Seen Cary Grant?" where a college professor exacts a nasty revenge on a recently widowed neighbor who accuses him of stealing car parts. Especially poignant are stories about children who fail to bring parents together, and whose lives are destroyed in the process, as in "The Small Things that Save Us," about a struggling one-armed farmer named Easy, and "All I Ever Wanted," in which the narrator's estranged girlfriend sells her baby to Gypsies. The writing sometimes grows flat and sentimental, but the whole collection possesses a harsh and wrenching agnosticism. "Despair I can handle," says a divorced philosophy professor of a weekend binge with her out-of-town boyfriend in one story. "It's hope that kills." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

A powerful and varied debut collection, sharing a theme of loss and alienation, from the author of the highly praised novel The Lost Son (1995).
These 13 stories, some of which have appeared in The Atlantic, GQ, and the Antioch Review, could have been titled "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Well-meaning people down on their luck press on, but keep getting hammered by fate. Spencer's heroes, like the man in the title story whose wife has just left him, are the shy types who, as children, "were always good at hide-and-seek. Too good." In many of these places, wives leaves their husbands. And in two, "Encantado" and "All Along the Watchtower," Spencer's men watch desperately as their wives lose their minds and are institutionalized. In the grimmest selection, "The Small Things That Save Us," a crippled hard-luck farmer must watch as his cattle slowly freeze to death. Luckily, Spencer has a deft touch, and his stories never slide into the maudlin; he catches the perseverance exhibited by ordinary people battered by life, trying to make yet another go at love, marriage, children, or a job. In "This is the Last of the Nice," the hero's wife leaves, ostensibly to go rafting, then sends her husband a postcard saying that she's not coming back. Driven by that blow into group therapy, he looks around and reflects that "It's Junior High. We're backed up against the gym wall, knowing we'll never get invited to dance." These lucid, wry moments are sprinkled throughout Spencer's work. When he indulges in comedy, as in "The Hazards of Poetry," in which an aspiring romantic poet moves to Venice only to find fetid canals and noisome tourists, Spencer can be devastatingly funny. There are no easy answers here, and no quick fixes.
An engrossing collection filled with vulnerable, decent human beings, by a talented observer of decent, taciturn people leading lives of quiet desperation. — Kirkus Reviews

Fictionist Brent Spencer's second book, a collection of short stories entitled Are We Not Men? begins with an epigraph from The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells: "What could it mean? A locked enclosure on a lonely island, a notorious vivisector, and these crippled and disoriented men?"
Spencer himself is an extraordinary vivisectionist, dissecting the damage of lives gone astray. ... The stories are filled with loss, but there is a Raymond Carveresque sharpness to them, and they are not without redemption. Across the landscapes of Pennsylvania mining towns, Spencer reminds us of the pathos of personal destruction. Even for the farmer whose life was falling apart, the small things would save him: "Days of sun and sweet breezes. Late afternoons full of birds streaming into trees. And other shadows on other nights, as deer climb down from the high ground to the stream in moonlight." — The Penn Stater

The Lost Son
Copyright © 1996
by Brent Spencer
Arcade Publishing

Powerful gusts from family fission sweep us into The Lost Son. Having decided men's problems are too far gone for help, Ellen has left Redmond, her lover of twelve years, and Nick, her sixteen-year-old son, and struck out on her own. Redmond was a wide spot in the road, Ellen repeats to herself, nothing more. Leaving him was as clean a getaway as a getaway gets. On the other hand, what she should say to her son is beyond her, so when she calls up and Nick answers, silence does the talking.
Blaming each other and stranded together, Redmond and Nick struggle along without Ellen — mostly on microwaved burritos and avoidance maneuvers. The dishes in the sink pile up, tensions run high. Appearances shatter when Nick accidentally jolts Redmond by switching on the electric fence at the wrong moment and Redmond responds by nailing shut the chicken coop with Nick inside. Peace is not at hand: Redmond is too haunted by a nightmarish childhood, and Nick too pistol-whipped by adolescent rage. Most of all, they are too much alike — lost sons both.
Pushing his characters to the wild edge of themselves, Brent Spencer allows their voices to tell an unsettling and unforgettable story. Ellen, Redmond, and Nick are the exploded American nuclear family, crucifying one another for all the things life didn't deliver, blaming each other for every wound — including the self-inflicted ones — and hopelessly tangled up. The terrain Spencer explores will remind readers of the finest works of Sam Shepard and Raymond Carver. His novel also draws deep from the well of comic relief, particularly in the character of Jack "Titty" Teague, a scheming developer and middle-aged dreamer in an unending battle against the local zoning board, chaired with efficiency and zeal by his ex-wife. And when Nick gets his revenge on a sadistic football coach, the heart soars with the glory and hilarity of a bit of "ugly fun."
The Lost Son trucks with competing forces, mixed motives, the poignantly ridiculous extremes we go to in pursuit of intimacy and then in recoiling from it. Yet the characters' wildest selves only strengthen our connection to their struggle between the backward pull of a dark past and the driving force of redeeming love. Spencer has the reader looking in the roadside dives and rural trailer parks where the American dream settled down to get liquored up, and finding what belongs to us all. — from the jacket

Brent Spencer's first novel, The Lost Son, is a taut exploration of dysfunctional relationships and dreams gone sour. Nothing on Lloyd Redmond's Pennsylvania farm works: the chicken coop is a pile of rotten wood, the electrical fence has a short, and Redmond's lover, Ellen, a self-loathing drunk, has run off, leaving behind her 16-year-old son, Nick. Despondent and angry, Redmond is haunted by memories of his miserable childhood. Nick has taken to sleeping in the chicken coop. And Ellen is heading cross-country, ruminating on all the bad decisions that have brought her to this point. The story, seen largely through the eyes of these three characters, veers from shimmering scenes of parental cruelty to bland depictions of rural life. Despite a sometimes flat tone, The Lost Son conjures up a powerful vision of alienation and lost love. — Maggie Garb, New York Times Book Review

With fearlessness, precision, and gallows humor, Brent Spencer exposes the generational torments, humiliations, and false pieties that have too often ruptured family life. These bonds of blood are just that in this fine first novel: imprisoning, painful, and murderous. The Lost Son is a haunting, poignant, stunning American Gothic. — Ron Hansen

The Lost Son is a beautiful book — about destructive love, unnecessary losses, and how to save yourself. Brent Spencer's voice is sweet, manly, terrifying. — Lynne McFall, author of Dancer with Bruised Knees

The Lost Son is hard, unflinching, bleak yet luminous. Through it runs Spencer's deep compassion — call it love — for his characters, whose wandering, stranded lives move from the edges to the center of our hearts. — William Loizeaux, author of Anna: A Daughter's Lfe

Brent Spencer explores the nature of men who love, men who destroy, and men who can't tell the difference. Funny and horrifying, generous and compassionate, The Lost Son takes us on a visit to the dark places of the human heart. — John L'Heureux, author of The Handmaid of Desire

Brent Spencer's first novel, The Lost Son, is a story of displacement, disillusionment, and dysfunction, with enough fighting and drinking and loving to fill a double album of greatest country hits. There's that certain belief it's in our nature to beat ourselves up for love, and Spencer explores it thoroughly, with enough dry humor to let us emphathize with his characters' noble and pathetic attempts to connect with one another without completely falling prey to despair. ... What Brent Spencer does well is tell the stories of these poor creatures in The Lost Son with such tenderness for their weaknesses that he leads us grudgingly to accept both his characters and their troubles as our own. — Kate Flaherty, Prairie Schooner

Spencer achieves what most debut writers merely attempt: He gives personal experience universal meaning and makes small-town tragedy profound. ... Tender, skillful, and true. — Kirkus Reviews (pointer review)

If Brent Spencer's taut and skillful first novel were a self-help book, its title might be "Men Whose Fathers Didn't Love Them (and Whose Women Unwisely Did)." Fortunately, this is fiction instead. And although Spencer cuts his slice of life fairly narrowly — tracing the effects of child abuse through three generations of a Pennsylvania family — his ear for dialogue, his feel for the region, his spare but exact prose and his rich characterizations make it much more than a case history. ... As self-help books seldom can, Spencer makes us care. — Los Angeles Times

Impressive. — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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