The night I met Thom Atkinson, he read a story aloud at a writers conference. The first page of his work had me laughing so hard I cried, inelegantly, yes, even snottily. Seven pages later, the story moved with inevitable conviction to a point so terrible, so humanly tragic it became too wrenching for tears. How can a writer do this? Thom can; these tales pour naturally out of him because he’s lived a thousand lives.
Ten year old Tammy hops off the bus from Ohio clutching a set of colored markers and her garbage bag of dirty clothes, her pink gym shoes the first thing to hit Florida– the first thing she’ll lose there, but never forget. Those shoes become part of the story she and the bald stranger Pere, will weave between them over the days they share.
Pere, struggling to stay sober, one half step from homelessness, stretches all the little he has to take his girlfriend Missy’s child in. Around them, his friends in this tawdry sun bleached neighborhood treat Tammy and Pere as father and daughter, though neither biology nor the law would agree.
Missy is the connection that loops the Tammy and Pere together. Pregnant with Pere’s child, Missy serves time in prison for drug possession, pining not for him, nor for Tammy, but for the next hit of meth. Despite this truth, Tammy and Pere spin their relationship of threads verging on lies to include Missy, as though they could some day all share a future. Thrown together by the carelessness of people too broken to cope, Pere and Tammy construct their companionship, one quiet comment, story or laugh at a time. Then Missy’s midnight phone call confessing her miscarriage rips their tissue of hope for reunion and family. What Tammy and Pere and their odd assemblage of friends make next, in these ruins, is the story.
Wonderful friends, both bad and good, step forth with complex insights and troubles– satisfying, pungent people, the kind of people you see before you try to pretend you haven’t, the kind you can tell not only have problems, but are problems. From Tampon John–his dreadlocks flying with their little white bundles, rising from the bushes to lend a helping hand at a critical moment, to Doris who is the icon of the library, unattainable, compassionate and mistaken, Thom peoples this world with a range of individuals like Pearl and Clyde, full of lies of kindness, whose company will shadow your imagination long after you finish reading, and compel you to look twice at the unhoused man on the corner talking to himself.
Pere may know that any hope in his union with Missy and the baby was doomed before conception, and Tammy may understand just as clearly, but it doesn’t ease Missy’s news, nor soften the loss. When Tammy envisions a substitute baby, carved like a tiki man from the stump of a dying palm tree, Pere moves friends, power saw, screwdrivers and motley tools to give form to what she has imagined. The tiki man of his hands, baptized ‘Lonnie’, becomes a member of their family.
We watch them making a found family deeper and more true than anything either of them has ever had before. Pere with his violence and craving for alcohol barely held at bay, Tammy using her dead cell phone as counselor and friend, still somehow manage to communicate and speak each other’s language. Pere’s enormous desire to protect Tammy bursts out repeatedly, and we see the threats he sees, and how urgent his need is to act. But yet more threatening than his outbursts, time is passing, and all that these two can do is look at the calendar with its inevitable march into more trouble. For school opens soon, and Pere has no standing in the eyes of the law to take stewardship of this ten year old girl. He is neither parent nor guardian, he has no legal authority, no security of income or means– even his car has been repossessed, and the shadow of child protective services grows hourly longer, reaching for them both without mercy.
Thom Atkinson, whom author Jim DeBrosse has called “the best author you’ve never read”*, shares an acute sensitivity to the visual and physical in his work. He unerringly gives the one detail that focuses a scene or face or feeling. His setting blares heat and sound. The Florida beach with its dead turtles and seaweed, the stage voices of impersonators braying Neil Diamond’s ‘Coming to America’ on the gambling boat, the ocean, salt as tears, always moving in the background, seething with gold skates flying in the waters, golden light glittering in reflections and rising with dolphins (one of whom Pere swears stole Tammy’s pink shoes from the sand on her first day in Florida.) From the tatty grocery store and its bent-wheeled carts to the dim apartment where Pere and Tammy nest, with the old fan pushing the heavy late summer heat around, Thom gives us places and textures vivid and true.
Rigor and passion infuse Thom Atkinson’s work. He possesses a fine strong touch, taking us into some dark dreadful places, with the ghost of laughter. Thom’s book, Tiki Man, has us smiling in places appropriate and inappropriate, smiling on the raw, you might say, and wondering about where his people are now, because when you’re done and close the book, you’ll miss them.