Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue enthralled me when, early in 2021, I happened upon his meandering boyhood memoir of faith and family history. (Click here for that review.) Personal connections with the Persian speaking world heightened my interest in his account of his mother’s conversion to Christianity and their subsequent flight to the West. But more than regional interest engaged me.
Nayeri’s prose disclosed hope and humor in the grimmest of circumstances. My husband had just been diagnosed with cancer, and the pandemic was still in full force. Upon reading the final page of Everything Sad—the same day I started it—I went searching for more of Nayer’s work.
But aside from a few early reader chapter books, I found only the 2011 edition of Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow. Alas for me, I dismissed the collection of four novellas as unpromising, based on the spurious statistic of Amazon reviews (a mere twenty-five). But when Candlewick re-released the title in 2022 I decided it might merit further investigation. It did—and does.
To clarify,no retelling of The Three Little Pigs takes place in these pages, as I initially supposed. One element of the title, “Straw House,” “Wood House,” “Brick House,” or “Blow,” serves as a section title preceding each of the four novellas. The epigraphs that follow all reference alternative modern twists on the folktale. In so doing they echo the clever, quirky, and creative nature of Nayeri’s own stories.
Indeed, this is a volume rich with allusions, ranging from Shakespeare and 19th-century novels to DC comics. Doom with a View references Sleeping Beauty, along with other classics. Toy Farm, loosely allegorical, bears the tone and tropes of American westerns. Our Lady of Villains take an epistolary turn, with excerpts from chat room conversations, corporate PR announcements, and a teen diary. And Wish Police is a cop story starring a djinn released from servitude against his wishes.
In the first novella, Toy Farm, an off-stage farmer grows toys out of the dirt. A scarecrow named Sunny and the farmer’s daughter, Dot, serve as the farm’s caretakers. But two new arrivals disturb the peace. An old cowboy named Sobrino shows up, unsought, looking for work, and a jealous neighbor, the Growin’ Man, brings his homunculi. These soulless beings reminiscent of Orcs wreak havoc on the little homestead until Sunny, Dot, and Sobrino intervene.
Toy Farm’s proseis not as polished as that of Nayeri’s masterful memoir, and not being well versed in westerns, I wasn’t poised to fully appreciate the genre. But Nayeri’s use of symbolism piques interest, and a regrettable if foreseeable death prompts reflection on the necessity of sacrifice in overcoming evil.
By contrast, my personal interest in the epistolary form lent immediate appeal to Our Lady of Villains. The speculative story posits familiar “what ifs”: What if a single corporation took over the world? What if text-ese permeated written and spoken language? What if technology turned everyday life into a VR experience?
Both form and content demand close reading. From the variety of proffered media, readers must tease out the plot and determine which are the relevant details. Ascertaining how the terms “villain” and “hero” are employed in this near-future society takes some time. And as in the real world, it is not immediately clear who are the good guys and who the bad. Just when I felt secure in my conclusions, another plot twist would cast me into doubt.
But it is the third story that is truly my favorite and that I’m hoping will yield follow-ons. The ending certainly suggests the possibility. Detective Saul is a Persian genie who still misses the family he left behind when his master freed him centuries ago. In a Ziploc bag in his pocket rides his sidekick, Ari, who talks like Iago from the animated “Aladdin.”Their new comrade, Mack, has been demoted for undisclosed reasons. She might be a leprechaun, might be a New Yorker, and might be something else.
The three members of the Wish Police are dispatched to investigate the embodied wish of a spoiled adolescent who, in a fit of pique, wished his whole family would die. The adventure that ensues involves slapstick, explosions, motorcycle chases, clever one-liners, multiple mistaken identities, and humorous jabs at stereotypes that only a Middle Easterner could voice. Behind it all echo the words of Jesus: “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement” (Matt. 5:22).
The final story, Doom with a View, is a sardonic, anachronistic riff on Shakespeare and European fairy tales, with Death as narrator. Star-crossed lovers, eccentric artisans, resurrected divine beauties, and modern-day kitsch all have their day. The result is a charming and entertaining tale rife with literary and cultural allusions.
I typically pass over short stories in favor of the more immersive experience of novels. But Nayeri’s novellas proved the ideal length; the page count provided sufficient time to sink into the world of the story. But it was also satisfying, in the midst of a full schedule, to be able to read a work in its entirety without waiting weeks for the conclusion.
The ideal audience to appreciate these stories is likely to be teenaged or older. Nayeri’s experience immigrating to the U.S. and growing up with an Iranian mother give him a perspective on Americana both incisive and comedic. And as with Everything Sad Is Untrue, the author proves an adept observer of and commentator on culture and human nature. All four novellas contain elements of truth, whether it’s the redemptive power of self-sacrifice, the inevitability of death, or the destructive power of unharnessed desire. If number of Amazon reviews is an indicator of anything, it is that Nayeri’s debut work has not garnered the attention it deserves.