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In Tommy Pico’s latest (and final) installment of his Teebs trilogy, he delivers a thoroughly examined survey of junk: junk as miscellany, junk as food, junk as body parts, junk as baggage of the emotional and physical varieties, junk as all that scattered rubble that keeps us weighted in the past. Pico — a 2018 Whiting Award recipient — is most impressive, his writing most immediately felt, when he weaves pop culture and slang throughout his deep-rooted criticisms of US history and culture, wooing readers into a comfortable, if brief, moment of familiarity (see: Janet Jackson lyrics) so that the swift pivot to violence and heartache hits like a gut punch. Junk can be fun, and it can be benign, but Pico compels us to consider what, or who, is categorized as "junk." Or, as Pico (who is part of the Kumeyaay Nation) explains: “I’m from a place where ppl became / garbage.” And how dangerous that an entire people can be stripped of their humanity, redefined by an oppressive other as something awaiting disposal.

Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up is an astounding collection of short stories — stories about girls who want to be plants, or a living boy who grew up in a family of zombies, or a dying woman who sneaks out for a night swim with an ailing man. These stories exist in worlds just past reality, just slightly uncomfortable, familiar until, suddenly, they aren’t. And I didn’t just read these stories, each revealing at once the absolute absurdity and magnificence of being alive; I savored them. Bullwinkel’s writing — her world-building — demands space to reflect on it, react to it, and then, if you’re like me, shout about it to anyone who will listen. And so, it’s fitting that in "Fried Dough," a story about teenagers falling in love in a 24-hour doughnut shop, one of the teens, while reading, "got on a chair and screamed a passage … that she thought was more beautiful than anything she had been previously told was beauty," because there were so many moments, while reading this book, in which I wanted to do the same.

It seemed the whole world fell in love with Michael Chabon’s writing about fatherhood when his essay "My Son, the Prince of Fashion" was published in GQ two years ago — at least based on its immediate ubiquity. The internet’s fervor was warranted: The essay, about bringing his son, the sartorial wunderkind, to Paris Fashion Week, is a loving testament to parenting — the pride of seeing one’s child in his element, the aching realization that with such autonomy comes greater distance, and the often bumbling attempts at bridging that gap anyway. The essay (renamed "Little Man") is one of seven essays in Chabon’s new collection, Pops, and each strikes the same tender, humble note. Most striking, though, is Chabon’s exploration of manhood and masculinity through this lens of parenting. It’s in his work toward collapsing the myth of the male writer as absentee father, toward rejecting conformity, and in his emphatic insistence that men bear the unique obligation to tirelessly fight against, as Chabon puts it, "dickitude" — and to raise their sons to do the same.

Listen, I will be honest. As a rehabilitated English literature major from a small liberal arts college, I am inclined to avoid books about the sort of overwrought navel-gazing I found (and engaged in myself) during those four years. But to ignore Andrew Martin’s Early Work — a wry and pitch-perfect novel about late-twentysomething writers and lazy, progressive creatives in varying stages of existential crises — because of any painful familiarity is to do yourself a disservice. The book follows Pete, an obviously smart if insufferable man who calls himself a writer despite not actually writing anything, a man who hasn’t yet figured out the difference between loving another person and loving what another person tells him about himself. Unfortunate both for his long-term girlfriend and for the new girl, Leslie, whom he can’t stop thinking about.

Early Work is a cautionary tale; it reveals, with damning irony, that one who romanticizes the agonized and drug-addled artist, prioritizing the lifestyle over any actual output, does so at his peril. Because, eventually, the people around him will have created some early work of their own — if only for the opportunity to move beyond it.