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420 Characters

420 Characters

4.4 5
by Lou Beach

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Within this collection of miniature stories, entire worlds take shape—some like our own, some hallucinatory fairylands--populated by heartsick cowboys, random criminals, lovers and drifters. In a dazzling narrative constellation, Beach’s characters contend with the strange and terrible and beautiful in life, and no outcome is certain. Begun as a series


Within this collection of miniature stories, entire worlds take shape—some like our own, some hallucinatory fairylands--populated by heartsick cowboys, random criminals, lovers and drifters. In a dazzling narrative constellation, Beach’s characters contend with the strange and terrible and beautiful in life, and no outcome is certain. Begun as a series of Facebook status updates, 420 Characters marks a new turn in an acclaimed artist and illustrator’s career, and features original collages by the author.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
By turns cheeky and cherubic, these 420-character shorts from the author’s Facebook page encapsulate in pithy form entire plotlines or character studies. Known largely as an illustrator featuring surrealist juxtapositions and startling cut-outs (Beach’s artwork appears here intermittently), Beach injects these tidy depictions with a similar boundless, mischievous imagination. “Zuma Pedley hailed from Lubbock, came to LA in ‘02 with his guitar, some songs, and an ugly dog”; “‘Don’t drink the tap water,’ she said with science in her eyes.” Unforced, thoughtful, occasionally profound, these might be the beginning of story ideas, such as “I sit in this room in the castle’s turret and fashion animals out of twigs and string,” or a snippet of history: “Vera ‘Wooly’ Lamb dressed like a man, and could outcuss, outshoot, and outdrink anyone in pants, Little Rock, 1922.” They might even be a kind of rune for reflection, such as “I keep my friends in a box under the bed, categorized and separated, secured by blue rubber bands that originally held broccoli.” Or an exotic love story: “I cork her navel with a ruby, bring her saffron and pomegranates.” What they are, if not gimmicky, is sly, surprising, playful, puzzling—and great fun. (Dec.)
From the Publisher

"They are minimalist in word count only, since Beach’s imagination ranges as widely as his protagonists….Just because a story is short, even really, really short, doesn’t mean it can’t contain multitudes…the cumulative effect is one of gravity, humor and conviction….some of the experiments produce surprising and beautiful results."
New York Times Book Review

"A dreamy collection of mini stories and illustrations..."
New York Magazine

"Marvels of economy."
New York Times T Magazine

"Beach has managed to pack each tiny tale with vivid descriptions and narratives that are at once funny, sad, and bracing."
—Studio 360

"Beach has conjured self-contained, snow-globe-like worlds that are, like the dog curled up by the staircase, perfect."

"These thought-provoking vignettes from illustrator Lou Beach are funny, poetic, touching, sexy, twisted—scene-and-character sketches replete with bumpkins, criminals, angry teens, truckers, boozers, bimbos, animals, and sentient objects. Best savored one or two a day."
Mother Jones

"[Beach's] ability to capture complex scenes in just a few strokes makes his first book of fiction a keeper . . . Every story here is sharpened to a point."
The Observer's Very Short List

"It’s rare to find a book as seamless and fascinating as Lou Beach’s 420 Characters."
—Baltimore Citypaper

"From the great collagist and graphic designer Lou Beach comes a mischievous montage of a different sort: a tiny book filled with tiny stories . . . tragic, absurd, and sweet by turns, each snip of a story is a gem, able to hold its own against more standard-length fare."
Flavorwire  (A Must-Read Pick for December)

"Bizarre and awesome."

"This charming stocking stuffer proves just how much  "Beach injects these tidy depictions with...boundless, michievous imagination... Unforced, thoughtful, occasionally profound...sly, surprising, playful, puzzling--and great fun."
Publishers Weekly

"Eclectic, vivid moments in time, delivered in the exacting limits of social media...bold, impulsive flash fiction... These moments are...theatrical, instantly recognizable and slide off the tongue with the cacophony of a Tom Waits riff. An adroit experiment that marries linguistic restraint to literary cool."
Kirkus Reviews

"Sharp and driven by a droll wit...endearing and estranging...a sharp and wonderfully funny debut...these stories add up to something wonderful."
Library Journal

"Renowned for his intricate collages, a suite of which are reproduced here in full color, Beach brings his great gift for unexpected juxtapositions to his brief yet richly evocative and crisply visualized tales. Linked by reappearing characters, these microdramas of malaise and desire have an outlaw element, wry humor, frissons of creepiness, and bursts of beauty. Drifting in time, Beach’s potent little stories tell of love and family gone horribly wrong, drunkenness and desperation, dreams and wonder . . . Beach’s concentrated improvisations are emotive, disarming, and resplendent."

"Holy shit! Those are great! ... May they last a thousand years and be chiseled in stone."
—Jonathan Lethem

"Lou Beach uses words with no sympathy for the reader. He beats us senseless with his brilliance."
—Terry Gilliam

"[Beach] understands narrative in a deep way."
—J. Robert Lennon

"Lou Beach is full of wit, mirth and intelligence."
—Gary Panter, Emmy Award-winning author of Jimbo in Purgatory

"In only a few sentences, he remarkably manages to evoke character, milieu and mood."
—Joe Frank, Peabody Award-winning radio personality

Library Journal
There are some books you like, others that you don't, and that rare book that you like in spite of yourself. This book fits into the latter category. Originally posted as a series of status updates on Beach's Facebook page (which limits each entry to no more than 420 characters), these stories might easily be read as little more than a novelty, the first cousin of the Twitter novel or those books that appropriate the abbreviated language of texting. But it takes the reader only a few pages to realize that Beach's book is more than simple experimentation. The language is sharp and driven by a droll wit that attracts and repels, with results both endearing and estranging. Given Beach's background as an illustrator, it should come as no surprise that many of these pieces have an almost cinematic immediacy to them, and the unexpected, almost surrealistic twists make this a sharp and wonderfully funny debut. VERDICT Like a tasting menu, these stories add up to something wonderful. Readers of short fiction will love this one.—Chris Pusateri, Jefferson Cty. P.L., Lakewood, CO
Kirkus Reviews
Eclectic, vivid moments in time, delivered in the exacting limits of social media. Well, this is one hell of a way to mitigate the boredom of those monotonous Facebook updates. Celebrated illustrator Beach, better known for designing album covers for Weird Al Yankovich and The Flying Burrito Brothers, here turns his uncommon sensibilities to the written word, composing a small fortune in vignettes that originally appeared as Facebook updates. There are a few recurring themes and characters, but most stories exist as such gems on their own that it's easy to gobble them up like popcorn. An early standout finds an elderly narrator staring at a picture he (or she) painted long ago, struggling to excavate its original meaning. A miner reflects on the closing of his workplace for 27 years: "Where am I going to go every day, what am I going to do with all that sunshine?" Some are completely nonsensical: "I don't have to listen. I own the ocean," is just a couplet in one preposterous paragraph. Others are simply, evilly dark: "My hands are bound, and I am pressed against the spare tire. If there was a God, I would believe in him. The lid comes down and I am in darkness. It smells of oil and gas and rubber." Certainly some will argue that this is just another folly of the blogs-to-books phenomenon exemplified by Stuff White People Like and other humorous texts, but this book has more in common with bold, impulsive flash fiction than it does with the featherweight detritus of the Internet. These moments, even if not all of them are universal to the human experience, are theatrical, instantly recognizable and slide off the tongue with the cacophony of a Tom Waits riff. Don't miss the bonus section on the author's website, where celebrity narrators Ian McShane, Dave Alvin and Jeff Bridges lend their unique cadences to Beach's miniature snapshots. An adroit experiment that marries linguistic restraint to literary cool.
Scott Bradfield
…minimalist in word count only, since Beach's imagination ranges as widely as his protagonists…the cumulative effect is one of gravity, humor and conviction. It's a big world, this conglomerate world of tiny stories, a concerted series of experiments in miniaturization.
—The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.34(w) x 8.06(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

Author's Note
The stories you are about to encounter were written as status updates on a large social networking site. These updates were limited to 420 characters, including letters, spaces, and punctuation. The author hopes you enjoy them.

THE STORM came over the ridge, a rocket, dropped rain like bees, filled the corral with water and noise. I watched lightning hit the apple tree and thought: “Fritters!” as we packed sandbags against the flood. There was nowhere to go that wasn’t wet, the squall had punched a hole in the cabin roof and the barn was knee-high in mud. We’ll bury Jess later, when the river recedes, before the ground turns hard again.

THE TRAIN pulled into the station. I hesitated before stepping down to the platform, then made my way to the shoeshine stand. I sat, put my foot up on the metal rest. The old man looked up before tending to my shoe. “You new in town?” I told him that indeed I was. “OK then,” he said and began cleaning my loafer. There was a local paper on the chair next to mine. The headline read: fire in hospital melts iron lung.

ZUMA PEDLEY hailed from Lubbock, came to L.A. in ’02 with his guitar, some songs, and an ugly dog. He didn’t think to change the world, wasn’t built that way, but thought music might lessen the burden of those with hearts. He was looking for an army of smiles, but settled for a girl with corn hair and a bungalow in the hills, grew tomatoes. The dog is still ugly.

I AM EXPLORING in the Bones, formations of caves interspersed with rock basins open to the sky. I hear a sound like a turbine as I exit a cave and approach the light ahead. I’m sure it’s a waterfall. What I encounter is a massive beehive, honeycomb several stories high, millions of bees. I crouch down to avoid detection and notice a shift in the tone of the hive’s collective drone. I turn around and see the bear.

SHE TRUSTED grins, they were shot directly from the heart. Whereas smiles, oh, smiles could trick, be untrue, do you harm. Mendacious, twisted with bad intentions, like her father’s, his mouth turned up at one corner like a beckoning finger, pulling his eye down into a squint.

WHILE I WAS AWAY you managed to rust all my tools. How is that possible? Did you dip them in the bathtub like tool fondue? I do not understand. You deny everything but cannot explain the rusted brad puller, pliers, awl, and bucksaw in our bed. “Maybe someone was playing a joke,” you say, then add: “A wet hammer is still a hammer.”

THE GUNNYSACK hangs from the pommel, full of sparked ore. I let Shorty sip from the stream, long neck arching in the sun. There is a ghost in the cottonwood I sit under to reread your letters. It tries to sniff the pressed flowers you sent from the garden in Boston, but the scent is gone. The petals and paper, envelope, all smell like campfire now.

MOUSE AND I lie on our stomachs on the warm and weathered planks. The little bridge spans the stream two feet below and the sun lays its hands on our backs. We drop pebbles into the creek and startle water striders, add to the trove of shining rocks and stones. Preteen bombardiers, we laugh at splashes. Twenty feet away, in another world, our parents and their friends sit on blankets, eat sandwiches and drink beer.

HE CALLED AGAIN. I accepted the charges of course, paid no attention to what he was saying, it’s always the same story. I focused on the background noise — the grunts and rough laughter, the shouting. Once I heard a scream, his receiver clattered against the wall, the line went dead. I picture the wall, men leaning against it, scratching names and pictures into it, waiting for their turn. I try to imagine the smell.
I can’t.

Meet the Author

Lou Beach’s illustrations have appeared in Wired, The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. He has designed album covers for Weather Report, The Neville Brothers, Blink 182, and many others. This is his first book of prose.

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420 Characters 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
CherylA More than 1 year ago
Lou Beach's "420 Characters" is a mesmerizing read. Beach, bored with the usual Facebook status entries, took his own daily status updates to a whole new level and created a piece of literary art. Beach wows the reader with his amazing ability to paint whole characters each with a unique and delicious story while being constrained to Facebook's allowed 420 characters. The reader will be sure to find something delicious in each tiny narrative. Beach has a unique talent to draw the reader in with his first sentence. I loved every word of this fabulous book. I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
IS IT?!!!& how do the dogs tie in?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It sounds like a good book! I hope it is if i get it!