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420 Characters by Lou Beach

420 Characters (edition 2011)

by Lou Beach

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11914101,247 (3.87)69
Title:420 Characters
Authors:Lou Beach
Info:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011), Edition: None, Hardcover, 176 pages
Collections:Your library

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420 Characters by Lou Beach



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Danny and I stand outside the church, fidget in our muted plaid sport coats. Maybe not muted enough. An old guy in a tuxedo walks up to Danny and hands him some car keys. “What’s this?” says Danny. “Aren’t you the parking valet?” says the guy. “No, I’m the best man.” The guy walks away and we see him later inside. He’s the father of the bride. “Oh, it’s going to be a fun reception,” Danny says, taking out the flask.

Lou Beach is a well known artist (but recent discovery to me) who has done many illustrations for clients such as Wired, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (where he was a regular contributor to the Book Review). The bio on his website starts with the following paragraph: "I was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, killed me a bear when I was only three. No, wait..I was born in Germany of Polish parents, came to the US when I was only four, spent my youth in Rochester, New York, riding my bike, building snow forts, throwing chestnuts at the kid down the street. I was a fair student, no great shakes, disappointing several teachers by not realizing my “full potential.”

Right away, you know you're dealing with a highly creative individual who doesn't take himself too seriously, especially given the kinds of illustrations which animate his site (see below). I discovered Beach when I was looking up reviews for [The Stockholm Octavo] by Karen Engelmann, offered as a Kindle daily deal one day and landed on the NYT review page featuring one of his gorgeous illustrations (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/books/review/the-stockholm-octavo-by-karen-eng...). Looking up his blog, I found out he'd published this book, which is a collection of short stories exactly 420 characters long, including punctuation, which he had initially published as his Facebook status updates when the site only allowed that specific amount of text. Then I discovered several LTers had already found this book and loved it. The kindle edition includes some illustrations and several audio selection read by Dave Alvin, Ian McShane, and Jeff Bridges. As can be expected from this sort of project, the results are a mixed bag. There are some sublime moments, some ho hum moments, and some head-scratching moments of... 'WTF?' but undeniably, the man had fun with the form and a reader is bound to find something that appeals. A few examples that worked for me:

The servants seem peculiar lately. The kitchen help, the housekeeper, and the gardener move about in a shuffle, mumbling, glazed. When I confront them they appear startled, as if just awakened. Only Claude, the chauffeur, retains his old demeanour, sneering or scowling, smoking a Gauloise as he leans against the Packard, wiping a long black fender with my cashmere sweater.


A bird lives on my head, nests in my hair, pecks at my scalp. A finch, I believe. When I go out in public I cover it with a hat, so it’s away from prying eyes and cats who would climb my body to catch it. Sometimes on the bus I notice others wearing hats, and if there are seeds or an errant feather on their shoulders, I nod and smile and preen.


I lay the book on the floor, open to the middle. It’s a lovely volume, green leather covers, engraved endpapers. I remove my shoes and step into it up to my ankles, knees, hips, chest, until only my head is showing and the pages spread around me and the words bob up and down and bump into my neck, and the punctuation sticks to my chin and cheeks so I look like I need a shave.


And my favourite:

“Are you my mommy?” said the little blue egg. “No, dear. You are a plastic trinket full of sweets,” said the brown hen. “My baby is over there," and she pointed to a pink marshmallow chick being torn apart and devoured by a toddler. The hen screamed and woke up, her pillow wet with sweat, the sheets twisted around her legs. “Christ, I hate that dream.” She reached for a smoke.

More stories, which weren't included in the book can be found on his site: http://www.loubeach.com/stories/ ( )
1 vote Smiler69 | Feb 10, 2014 |
Each of the micro-stories in this book makes a game attempt at setting a scene, at illustrating character, and at suggesting a larger context. Some are subtle, others broadly farcical, and nearly all of them go beyond their somewhat gimmicky origins. ( )
  rmagahiz | Dec 21, 2013 |
This is a book of microstories, each 420 characters or less. Many of them are excellent and some quite dark. Here's an example:

The train pulls into Jawbone at 1:07. I'm on the platform waiting for you but the only passengers off the car are three old farmers. I stand there for a while, look around, hoping you'll appear out of the heat. The engine chugs off into the dust and I retreat to the Red Dog, drink until I'm numb, then stumble past the livery barn to lie down on the tracks. I put my ear to the rail, close my eyes and listen for you.

The book as an object is a lovely red hard back with gold lettering and a band of a dust jacket. Surrealist illustrations by the author adorn the cover and can be found throughout the text. I wish more new hardbacks were presented so nicely. ( )
  dtn620 | Sep 22, 2013 |
Thanks to Mamie and Richard who wrote such wonderful reviews, I had to read this ASAP.

Some stories are thought provoking, some scary, some lyrical and others mystical, all are highly creative.

If only I had this book years ago when I sat through a creative writing course listening to the prof. tell the class to write a story about the fly, the fly, the fly on the wall.

I could have used Lou Beach as a reference regarding how the heck to compose an elusive thought and make it shine. ( )
  Whisper1 | Feb 17, 2013 |
420 Characters is not merely the title of this little book, it is also a description of what comprises the framework of these short stories - exactly 420 characters including spaces and punctuation. First appearing on Facebook as small vignettes, each story could contain only the 420 characters allowed by the site for the entry. At least that is my understanding of its origin, correct me if I am wrong, as I have no personal experience with that social media site.

These stories are clever and thought provoking. They remind me of poetry or a Truman Capote sentence - so carefully crafted, each word and punctuation mark deliberated over, each line needing to convey more than it contained in order to stay within its defined parameters and yet be a story with itself. They will make you laugh out loud and also cringe. Some will fit like a glove, and others will be very uncomfortable. But all most all of them will make you continue to think about them once you have read them, and a few will have you reading them again and again trying to discern their meaning. It was hard to settle on just two to illustrate the worthiness of this little book for your time, but here are two that spoke to me in different ways.

"'Are you my mommy?' said the little blue egg.
'No, dear. You are a plastic trinket full of sweets.'
said the brown hen. 'My baby is over there,' and
she pointed to a pink marshmallow chick being torn
apart and devoured by a toddler. The hen screamed
and woke up, her pillow wet with sweat, the sheets
twisted around her legs. 'Christ, I hate that dream.'
She reached for a smoke."

"He waited all his life for a splashy catharsis, ir-
refutable evidence that a profound change had trans-
formed him. It took him many years to realize that
he had altered each day by the sun's rising and
the moon's movement, by the unfurling of his daugh-
ter's tiny hand to grasp his thumb, by the cat on his
chest, by the glass of water his wife brought him be-
fore bedtime, by the questions his son asked." ( )
2 vote Crazymamie | Feb 9, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0547617933, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2011: Lou Beach takes the prize for best Facebook status update on nearly every page of 420 Characters. Most of us find it difficult to reduce the day’s events or our current emotional state to just 420 characters with spaces and punctuation, yet Beach manages to tell entire stories within these strict confines without losing anything you’d expect from a story with no character limit. These micro-stories range from funny to tragic to absurd, illustrated by Beach’s original artwork and collages. Taken separately, they’re the stories of dreams, both broken and realized; of relationships healthy and strange; of disillusionment and contentment. Taken together, they’re the story of life--or lives. Though there aren’t any overtly recurring characters, the stories still combine into a powerful cohesive whole that’s just as fun to read straight through as it is to read in chunks of 420 characters or less. --Malissa Kent

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:58 -0400)

"He dismounted at the dead end of the canyon, took a shovel and walked to a spot near a cottonwood and began to dig. When he was knee deep in the hole an arrow passed behind his head. He felt the air move and thought it a daring bird. The second arrow found its mark in his neck and the life seeped from him and he folded, inches from some letters and a lock of hair. Lou Beach began his writing career by updating his Facebook status, every day, with a new stand-alone story no more than 420 characters long. These narrative gems soon appeared on his website, and then arrived in the literary world. Alternately surreal, funny, ominous, and lyrical, 420 Characters offers an experience as dazzling as any in contemporary fiction, revealing worlds of meaning in single paragraphs. Beach's work has found admirers in Jonathan Lethem, Terry Gilliam, J. Robert Lennon, and others. The collection features original collages by the author, an acclaimed artist and illustrator"--… (more)

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