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Book Review: Home and Castle

Home and Castle. Thomas Benz. Snake Nation Press, January 12, 2018, Trade Paperback, 134 pages.

Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti.

Home and Castle is an extraordinary short story collection by Thomas Benz.

These are stories about middle-class men each caught in a brief space of time when so many things in their lives are changing, disappearing, or dying. All their middle-class values are in flux: marriage, divorce, parenting, romance, and jobs. This collection is more than stories put together for the reader’s enjoyment; it is more because the stories revolve around middle-class men and their complicated feelings. The book is the perfect accompaniment to an evening by a fireside with a snifter of cognac, a good friend, and a Thomas Benz story to discuss. The writing is so rich and honed that each story lingered in my thoughts long afterward.

While some writers choose to show off their breadth of knowledge by varying their stories widely within a collection, Benz knows this slice of men’s middle years and brings us into them with a close narrator. Much to think about, share, and reflect upon is packaged within this slim volume but Benz never preaches. He understands the private pain of men in the vortex of middle age, like an itchy suit that men wear, brave but not without discomfort.

Some stories call to mind early Joyce Carol Oates, whose characters were richly drawn and then veered off path to extreme consequences. Benz’s characters make dubious decisions, yet we’re not shocked by their weaknesses or inabilities to see themselves. The characters walk into the minefield of their middle years aware of the impending dangers but seem helpless to stop the ensuing mayhem when they are the greatest victims.

In my experience, men in novels and short stories are often epic and grand, degenerate serial killers, or pathetic losers, or some combination thereof. Benz writes about genuine people with lukewarm, under-developed ideas of success, romance, and how to deal with it all in a world that is too real. Some are heroes, devoted fathers, and curious seekers of the world around them. Benz lets us see all the scars they have given themselves as they bang against the rules trying to figure it out. They are people we may know.

This is the beauty of Home and Castle. Each story caused me to stop and think.

I plan to share this title, to talk about these characters and their interesting interior monologues as they go about make their life choices. Home and Castle would be an exceptional book club selection for the wonderful discussion possibilities it suggests to observers of the paths through life some men take as they crawl over the hump of middle age.


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