As a little girl, I nearly wore out our VHS tape of Disney’s animated Cinderella, watching once, twice a day. I loved watching Cinderella, but more than that, I wanted to be Cinderella. I called anyone who interrupted my playtime (namely, my mother) a kill joy. I practiced running down our big font staircase so that one of my dress-up shoes would be left perfectly angled a few steps from the bottom.
My life was nothing like Cinderella’s—loving parents, no talking mice—but the idea that a life could change so drastically was magical to me even as a four year old. It wasn’t until later that I started to wonder what happened to Cinderella after she married the prince. What happened after the happily ever after?
Christopher DeWan’s Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups, published by Atticus Books on September 22 of this year, picks up where fairy tales leave off. In 45 stories, most flash-length, DeWan has assembled a collection of modern-day myths that are equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking. Readers will find a labyrinth in a corporate office. A bullied boy who waits for his real people to take him away. A voice beckoning from the bottom of a well.
DeWan’s voice shines in stories like “The Little Mermaid” and “Rapunzel’s Tangles,” which investigate how these familiar fairy tale characters keep living after their happy endings. His writing is crisp and clear, tinged with the bite of dark humor, and he repeatedly creates images and metaphors that feel simultaneously fresh and familiar. In “The Little Mermaid,” the narrator gives up singing to have a family, and even though she is happy, “it wasn’t anything like she imagined: it was so plain and unglamorous, so simple that the word ‘happiness’ seemed like a poor fit, its smoothness all snagged on life’s complexities.”
Not all of the stories in Hoopty Time Machines are based on fairy tales or myths. One of my favorites in the collection, “Stolen,” is about a young woman who imagines the adventures her car might be having after it’s stolen from a grocery store parking lot. Her imaginings are mixed with fear as she realizes that thieves also have her address. Even though “Stolen” is a relatively realistic piece, it feels just as much at home in this collection as its more fabulist counterparts, exploring similar themes of change and its consequences.
Another theme that’s woven throughout the collection is the idea of the American Dream. Like their fairy tale counterparts, the characters in “Conestoga Wagon” and “An American Dream,” which bookend the collection, are faced with what happens when they do (or do not) get everything they ever wanted. The title story also touches on this dilemma, as the narrator watches his father work on “a hoopty car in the driveway.” The car is “a family joke,” and it’s just as much a part of the father’s routine as going to work and sharing a family dinner. It’s not until the narrator’s father reveals that “‘It’s not a car. It’s a time machine. It’s how I’m getting out of here’” that we realize that this story is a very different, but perhaps more authentic, take on the American Dream. The father uses his derelict time machine to escape the present he created and try “to correct his past mistakes,” an ending that feels especially prescient amidst a turbulent election cycle in post-Great Recession America.
The world of fables and fairytales that DeWan conjures up in Hoopty Time Machines is not the world of Disney’s Cinderella. Rather, he reinvents and cross examines our beliefs about the fables we live by, and makes several old familiar stories new. In a way, these stories are “hoopty time machines,” taking readers away from life’s complexities into a timeless place where we can see those complexities just a little more clearly. Though there are no conventional “happily ever afters”—in these stories, or in life— that doesn’t mean there is no room for joy, no cause for hope.
Christopher DeWan will be coming to Lancaster’s DogStar Books on Thursday, October 13, at 7 PM to read from Hoopty Time Machines as part of The Turning Wheel, a monthly reading series that takes place on the second Thursday of every month. Check out the event page for more information. Hoopty Time Machines is available for purchase at Atticus Books, Indiebound, and Amazon.
Christopher DeWan has published more than forty short stories in journals including Hobart, Passages North, and wigleaf, and he has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. As a screenwriter, he has been recognized by CineStory, the International Screenwriters’ Association, the PAGE Awards, and Slamdance. His debut story collection, Hoopty Time Machines, is available from Atticus Books. Learn more at http://christopherdewan.com/