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King of Joy

Kittens in vending machines, hippos rising out of dark water, broom handles made of gold: in his first novel, King of Joy, Seattle writer Richard Chiem blends comforting absurdity with the most profound reaches of grief. The result is a strange, unsettling harmony that is typical of his writing.

Drawing from themes also present in his 2012 short story collection, You Private Person, Chiem continues to explore the power of daydreams, drugs and pop music through Corvus, who is utterly adrift after a series of tragic losses. Intending only "to get a little bit more destroyed," Corvus enters into a shady agreement with a volatile porn director named Tim. This work brings her some healing, but when an already precarious situation turns dangerous, she realizes she must leave. À la Thelma and Louise, Corvus takes off with Amber, another actress, and a pit bull called Marco. The novel becomes a different kind of love story, one of deep friendship forged in the strangest of circumstances.

Interweaving flashbacks with present events, Chiem carefully folds illuminating details into his narrative, gradually giving readers a richer and more complex view of his characters. However, the intelligence of the writing really lies in Chiem's use of language: eschewing traditional rules of prose, he crafts a disarming and wholly original vernacular. It creates a cinematic and ultra-evocative story space, one that realizes youth as the alternative universe it can often feel like to those who inhabit it. Although Chiem is undeniably attracted to darker impulses, he doesn't shy away from critiquing the culture that romanticizes trauma. Overall, this is an exceptionally lucid work for Chiem, and it is sure to leave an impression on readers. --Emma Levy, bookseller at Third Place Books Seward Park, Seattle, Wash.