I first read Ordinary Handsome a little more than a year ago. Admittedly, I felt quite overwhelmed upon finishing the book, giving it a second, third, and fourth read. Not only did the book leave me breathing deeply, scouting for the aroma of old black tea, the imprisoning honesty of spilled liquor, salty dried blood staining dusty fabric, and the freshness of limes that serve disturbingly more than just a culinary purpose. Steven Baird’s novel demanded my full attention, and even though I was absolutely absorbed each time I read it in around five hours, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. His writing is exquisite, the subject matter is temporally relevant, and there are characters to both pity and loathe. Ordinary Handsome, in its grit and precision, tells of extraordinary misfortune and strife.
Baird illustrates the backdrop poetically. As we walk through the streets of Handsome, Oklahoma, it’s accepted that this is a town from someone’s childhood, or a town only heard of through family storytelling. The gravel scrapes beneath our feet, sweat rolls down our foreheads as we watch farmers toil to barely last the year, and we catch ourselves gagging, perhaps flinching, as we pass the bar owned by Henry Wasson, a simple man with a precocious son and memories that both comfort and haunt. In narrating the hardships of the townspeople, Wasson’s dilemmas, and the impact of his deeds on those around him, Baird clearly deliberates, word by word. While he abandons quotation marks, it is simple to discern who says what, and what was committed by whom. Perhaps Baird does this to further accentuate the bareness of an impoverished, dying town. Perhaps Baird does this to call for our attention, to read and re-read. The story, though structurally fragmented, comes together. But one has to watch for every reed to weave that compact basket.
Most impressive are the contrasts presented throughout the story. A bar packed with regulars and full glasses that actually faces financial collapse. The hint of a bra spotted on a young girl during a date years ago, a young man eventually choosing a bra that the girl will wear in her coffin. A boy who toys with grapes “like a kitten,” though his actions and father are far from innocent. The undeniable presence of families, however incomplete. While women make brief appearances throughout the story, there lacks a maternal element. Ultimately, we witness the struggles, codependency, and eventual severance of ties between fathers and their lone sons. Especially striking is the presence of a mathematics museum in a town that seems to forsake intellectuality. We have a father who manages a bar, who can’t comprehend the meaning of integers, and a son who seeks comfort in numbers and their certainty. While Handsome, Oklahoma appears dry, rusted, and cyclically unambitious, horrific crimes transpire. The darkness of such deeds is inarguable, though the consequences that follow are so numerous that the thought of what only could happen drives a man to madness.
Ordinary Handsome is more than an account of poverty, alcoholism, and damage rooted in human imperfection. It is a psychological thriller, a coming-of-age story, a dramatic read that one could adapt to an accessible play or film. Read it in the rain, twilight, or heat. Read it several times if the story perplexes you. Steven Baird has crafted more than a lush narrative, but moreover, a warning of the harm we all could inflict under desperation’s duress.
Ordinary Handsome is available on Amazon, via Kindle.