Jessica Bonder reviews Joe Young’s “The Thing I Was Trying to Tell You”

Jun 5, 2024 | Bubbler

Editor’s Note: Publishing Genius has been dropping books that push an overwhelming but mostly hidden conversation for twenty years. Jessica Bonder reviews one of their forthcoming titles by the unsteady-gets-it flash author and painter, Joe Young.

The Thing I Was Trying to Tell You compels the reader to park on a bench as they might in a gallery, indefinitely pausing at the painting framed before them. For Baltimore-based artist Joseph Young has written a collection of flash fiction that obliges contemplation. Poetic and profound, his stories paint characters like leaves on autumn trees, subjects for quiet study, colorful in fixed repose. In the briefest of spaces, the stories achieve a deep dive into humanity, each word bearing its weight like a stone clutched in a hand.

The book opens with the title story “The Thing I Was Trying to Tell You.” Much of Young’s project is concerned with communication, the ways in which meaning is conceived, its challenges and shortcomings. The framework for this first story is that of triangulation—the rule of thirds a standard for composition in art. Drawing a triangle in the air, one unnamed character entreats another to “try very hard” to visualize three things. In “The Drop,” Carrie and Robert, a hetero couple, try to come to terms with Carrie’s homesickness, struggling to do so despite their years together. The moment distills to a paradox that neither is able to solve: “There is something quick to all riddles. You have seen how the most compact of persons will stop, mid-stir, mid- labor, mid-stride.” These lines can be understood as Young’s modus operandi: his “compact” stories are “riddles” that fearlessly pause “mid-labor.” Young doesn’t flinch at cold endings. In fact, he favors them.

Young’s language is spare, bordering on abstract. Nowhere is this more evident than in “The Paintings of Forrest Bess,” a series of responses to Bess’s paintings as prompts. At first, the responses read as abstruse and inaccessible; it’s easy to write them off as a writer’s self-indulgence. Until it’s understood what Young is aiming to achieve: his language moves into abstraction much as Bess’s paintings do. A standout in the collection is “Markus Rothkowitz—All Over.” Note that Markus Rothkowitz is none other than Mark Rothko, the American abstract painter best known for his color field paintings. The story imagines Markus indolent on a couch, observing the incoming light of a two-paneled window. An amateur photograph of a window as described accompanies the story, suggesting the author himself has an affinity with the artist.

Young takes formal risks. See “Ars longa, vita brevis,” eleven pages of descriptions of performers who died of heart attacks while in the act of performing. Culled from Wikipedia entries, the list is so long that it grows akin to process art, taking on the droning, repetitive quality of noise. The piece recalls Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, a work of sound art in which each successive statement of the phrase causes it to lose significance. Each death by heart attack grows less and less important, a running commentary on our collective apathy, or a trick of gallows humor, if not well-researched.

On collective apathy, these are stories of our times, times in which god seems absent yet nevertheless appears. Street people serve as preachers in several of Young’s stories, including “Heart Shaped Box” and “Mystery and Manners.” In the latter, a wooden-legged veteran carries around a Bible and preaches to kids, to whom he describes himself as “the shattered appliance of God.” These kids, however, are not looking to be saved, miscreants under the freeway poised on the lip of violence. “Heart Shaped Box” is a story straight from the streets of Baltimore. A leather-clad vagrant described as a “saint” declaims his thoughts on Marxism. Meanwhile, a young person tweaking out needs a dose of Narcan.

We simply can’t explain the elephant in the room. In Young’s world, it’s a literal elephant camped out in the attic. “This elephant is not a metaphor,” says the narrator in “Applause Please.” “She—as god or the empty stars allow—is her own elephant outright.” Albeit titularly, the pachyderm appears again in “Plato’s Old Blind Elephant.” The story takes the form of a debate between a man and a woman at gentle odds over the origin of a spider web. Who made the spider web? Was it god or the spider? In typical Youngian style, the man’s answer is a non-answer: “In fact, I have no idea what you’re talking about. No idea what anyone’s talking about.” In an ancient parable, a group of blind men touch an elephant they’ve never before encountered. Each takes his limited experience of the animal to be the absolute truth. Maybe this is what Young is getting at in his singular collection.

Jessica Bonder is the author of the novella BROKE WITCH (Thirty West Publishing House, 2022) and the chapbook BELL AND LIGHT (Galileo Press, 2020). Her short stories have appeared in The Stockholm Review, The Lonely Crowd, Maudlin House and Occulum, among others. Please visit her at