“The Pickle Index is full of life and everything elseit’s rowdy and sweaty and heartbreaking, and by heartbreaking I mean funny, and by funny I mean laugh-until-you’re-exhausted-and-leaking-and-hungry.”
Zloty Kornblatt is the hapless ringmaster of an even more hapless circus troupe. But one fateful night, Zloty makes a mistake: he accidentally makes his audience laugh. Here on the outskirts of Burfordwhere both the cuisine and the economy, such as they are, are highly dependent on pickled vegetableslaughter is a rare occasion. It draws the immediate attention of the local bureaucracy, and by morning Zloty has been branded an instigator, conspirator, and fomentor sentenced to death or worse.
His only hope lies with his dysfunctional troupea morose contortionist, a strongman who’d rather be miming, a lion tamer paired with an elderly doga ragged band of misfits and failures who must somehow spring Zloty from his cell at the top of the Confinement Needle. Their arcane skills become strangely useful, and unlikely success follows unlikely success. Until, suddenly, the successes endleaving only Flora Bialy, Zloty’s understudy and our shy narrator, to save the day.
Punctuated with evocative woodcuts by Ian Huebert, Eli Horowitz's The Pickle Index is a fast-moving fable, full of deadpan humor and absurd twistsand an innovative, exhilarating storytelling experience.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||7.40(w) x 5.00(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Eli Horowitz was the managing editor and then publisher of McSweeney's. He is the coauthor of The Clock Without a Face, a treasure-hunt mystery; Everything You Know Is Pong, an illustrated cultural history of Ping-Pong; The Silent History (FSG Originals), with Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett; and The New World (FSG Originals), in collaboration with Chris Adrian. He lives in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
The Pickle Index
By Eli Horowitz, Ian Huebert
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Eli Horowitz
All rights reserved.
"WE GOT HIM."
by Yevgeny Pinkwater - The Daily Scrutinizer
The strike team spotted the compound from above, a pinwheel of menacing color amid the drab hills of our nation's fermented birthplace. Six female rangers parachuted through the humid darkness and then crept toward the compound, which was enshrouded in a ring of overlapping canvas sails, a counterraid strategy that rendered the team's shatterbolt equipment useless. The sails were adorned with strange occult patterns, portraits of large and/or hairy men, depictions of snarling hounds; whether these images were intended as dazzle camouflage or crude propaganda is still uncertain.
The team established a position just outside the largest tent, moving silently to elude the target's henchmen, a cadre of collaborators that mirrored his elusive swerves across the rural districts. A biothermal scanner revealed the heat signature of the target's breath, which appeared to be emanating from within a primitive wooden trunk. The team surrounded the tent while the shooter and her wingman entered through a flap in the front. Confirming the agency's intelligence, the suspect's inner sanctum was in a state of menacing squalor: An array of crude hand-smithed knives scattered upon an empty barrel. Reams of flash paper and explosive charges. Books on disappearance, on live burial, on mind control. Chains and restraints. Dog collars. Matching windbreakers.
The remainder of the team rushed the tent, assuming a three-horned assault formation around a crate marked Wigs n Things. They carefully removed the lid and trained their weapons on the charismatic hatemonger cowering within — now just a trembling man in a tattered white tuxedo, half-buried in human hair and oversize shoes.
That man is Zloty Kornblatt, the instigator, conspirator, and fomenter, who was apprehended by an elite preemption squad mere hours ago. Kornblatt and his troupe of disciples had been traveling throughout the Burford encampments for several months, a recruitment drive posing as theatrical gaiety. Even as simple theatrics, these "performances" would have been unlicensed and therefore illegal — but, of course, insufficient licensing was the least of Kornblatt's crimes, and theatrics were far from his true aim: mockery, destabilization, and anarchy, blurring the serious with the comical and the comical with the unintentional. Let Kornblatt's capture serve as an example to any others who would sass all that we hold dear.
Through his rabid dedication to anonymity, Kornblatt had evaded government surveillance for several years — until, like all men of low character, he became sloppy. Yesterday evening, at a solicitation rally for prospective foot soldiers, he overlooked the presence of one Clemford Moritz, undersecretary for Burford Region Cohesion Enhancement. Moritz, shocked by Kornblatt's lacerating personal attacks upon our Madame J (attacks so vicious and provocative that I am prohibited by law from relating them here, not that I'd want to anyway), filed a report in accordance with the new Transparency Initiative, instituted to ensure complete openness in all government–citizen interactions. Moritz's report was delivered to his semiregional oversecretary, who quickly informed his division's unanimity council, and so on, each bureau elevating the alert with admirable speed and thorough documentation. By dawn, Kornblatt was blubbering within the smooth walls of a mobile detention pod, bound for the Confinement Needle, where he shall remain (and blubber) until further notice.
In other news, Madame J today traveled from Destina to a cucumber farm in the northern territories, where she offered encouragement to the orphans working so hard to fill our nation's jars. The Madame was resplendent in satin fatigues, accented with an orange sash to match the oxygen masks of the children, and a mink cadet cap from which her golden bangs flowed like a waterfall. She toured the facilities on a moving platform and even walked among the children for a short time, favoring her right leg as she bore her wartime injury with grace and composure. In the crook of her arm she held Simeon, the cobalt Javanese octopus that has become our nation's most beloved invertebrate. A bearded assistant carrying a spray bottle of saline solution kept Simeon moist while Madame J distributed ration poppers and finger wipes to the children, who then performed an aria of gratitude.
"Some people call these children orphans," the Madame said in a press briefing later, gently stroking Simeon with a white-gloved hand. "But I don't see them that way. They are the children of our nation. I am, almost literally, the mother of all these unfortunate little people you see all around you. I understand what a grave responsibility this is. That is why I am here. I can think of no greater honor than to nurse these children as if I birthed them myself." Citizens are discouraged from envisioning the Prime Mother in the act of nursing, whether literal or metaphorical; nevertheless, our nation's gratitude for the nourishment of her milk (strictly metaphorical) is very real.
May your strivings today result in actionable and profitable outcomes.
[Cucumbers; cuke-mites; air]
Zloty left us last night. No one saw him sneak away, no one heard him pack his tuxedo and hat and disappear down the muddy road, but we woke this morning to find an empty tent. We slowly assembled in the wreckage of his hasty departure, the scattered wigs and lolling scraps of canvas, testaments to his eagerness to finally escape our dead weight. I looked from face to face, expecting defensive rationalizations or indignant accusations, but mostly everyone just seemed tired. Dieter squeezed a tedfruit in a trembling fist. Marina kicked a rock into a puddle. "Maybe he just stepped out to buy us cinnamon buns?" Reuben said weakly, but no one replied. The tedfruit burst in Dieter's hand, showering me with pulp. He turned and walked back to his tent, and one by one so did everyone else, until it was just me standing there amid the wigs and canvas and mud, bits of tedfruit dripping into my eyes.
There were plenty of good reasons to leave, of course, but Zloty had ignored them all for so long, and with such good cheer. Which one finally pushed him over the edge? Was it our bickering, or our incompetence, or our bad personal aromas? Was it me?
I couldn't blame him for giving up on us. Our old tour circuit had dwindled to a Burford-Dupton-Grütn triangle, and then just an extended residency in Burford, home of the pickle collective, the summer pickle olympiad, and the region's largest fossilized pickle. In the old days, our route was actually a route — Burford and Dupton and Grütn, sure, but then on to Moylrad and then Tubuntsi and all the western villages. Once we even made it to Spagg. We used to be a real traveling circus, one that actually traveled and was a circus — I mean, one that actually entertained people, at least a little. At least sometimes. We had all of the real circus things, once. Clowns, a trapeze, roasted nuts in paper cones.
Then came the night of the National Puppetorium fire. It was never clear whether the arsonists were antiadministration or just antipuppet, but a week later we woke to find that the valley separating Destina from Burford had been intentionally flooded, creating the scenic DestBurf River, our nation's wettest waterway. Destina thrived, a gleaming city of fruit salad and ornamental lasers, while the rest of us were left on the far shore, stewing morosely alongside our cucumbers. The Index was launched sometime around then, a vibrant forum nurturing pride in our nation's traditional cuisine, or at least that's what we were told. (The Index also served to distract anyone who might wonder about the dwindling supply of nonpickled foods, at least on our side of the river.) It all felt mildly absurd, but no one wanted to laugh at the wrong thing, and the enhanced public-amusement regulations included specific prohibitions against bow-tied animals and excessive guffaws. It would have been a difficult climate for even a top-notch circus — and we were far from top-notch.
So the clowns and trapeze and roasted nuts slowly fell away, lost to decay or incompetence or ennui, and we sank deeper and deeper into the sticky Burford mud, the lights of Destina pulsing from across the river. Still we managed to put on a show six days a week — not out of any persistence or idealism, but just because Zloty wouldn't let us quit. He'd rouse us each morning, bubbling with grandiose schemes for each night. Somehow we'd muddle through the day, grudgingly surrendering to one final show — and then the next morning it'd all happen again.
It seems crazy now, but I once thought I was surrounded by greatness. I thought maybe I could help. Somehow Zloty never stopped believing, and so neither did we, at least not entirely.
Until, sometime last night, he did.
* * *
Yesterday began the same as the day before, and the day before that: in the morning, like every morning, I walked into town with a stack of flyers, and that afternoon, like every afternoon, I returned to our clump of tents with the same stack. I've developed a less-is-more strategy for promotion and outreach, a reverse-salesmanship technique wherein I strive to display absolutely no interest in the people who walk past me in the square. It works about as well as you'd expect. Back in our salad days, when I was still a naive girl in a flowery dress, I'd bark bally like a pro. "More fun than a drunken toddler!" I'd shout, with a little vibrato in my voice. "Thrills and chills and spills and dills! Anything can happen, and it just might!"
Over the years, though, that last line became uncomfortably true — we had no idea what would actually happen each night. Like Dieter, if he wasn't sulking in his pup tent, might decide to eat the pallet of tedfruit he was supposed to lift. Kovacsz could lose interest in his chained-submersion act and try freestyling with a flare gun and a bungee cord, which is how we ended up with seven regulars in the audience instead of eight. Martin Van Buren has been known to squat in the ring, lift his mangy tail, and dump a steaming pod of shitballs right in the middle of Reuben's tragic mustache routine. Sure, Martin's a dog, but still it's a real spirit-breaker. Last night's show wasn't any better than usual, but it didn't seem any worse. I guess Zloty just couldn't stand it anymore — couldn't stand us anymore.
He began the show in the center of the ring, standing tall in his ridiculous top hat with the burst seam at the back. I steadied the spotlight, trying to keep him centered in the makeshift cone of light as he twirled and bowed spastically at the crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen, seekers and sojourners," Zloty boomed. In the rickety bleachers, a scattering of Burfordians stirred to life: the Dorfelmeier twins, Breal the Cart Hag, Undersecretary Moritz, and the catatonic Mrs. Tralm and her beef-eating sons. "You have flocked from far and wide," he said, referring, I guess, to the cardboard encampment on the east side of town, "drawn like moths to a flame, lured by tales of feats so amazing they defy belief. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to say: believe! The tales are true. The feats are imminent. Tonight you will see a man lift more than a man should lift! A juggling duo united by love and bowling pins! A beautiful assistant, assisting beautifully! And much, much more. But first, let us begin with Valentino, wrangler of jungle fury, and his mighty Martin ... Van ... Buren!"
Earlier that afternoon, Martin had caught a musk eel in the floodpipe and gnawed it to pieces before taking a long, sprawling nap in the sun, the heat of which baked the foul smell into his fur. A fresh musk eel smells bad enough, but a single whiff of sunbaked musk eel on dog fur could turn your liver to stone. Zloty had urged Valentino to take the night off because of the stench, but Val insisted that it was his right as a shareholder in the Carnument to take part. When he entered the tent, dragging Martin Van Buren behind him on a tattered nylon leash, the audience recoiled, gasping for breath.
"You are correct to gasp!" he proclaimed. "What you see before you is an animal on the verge. A primal creature capable of extreme carnage, held at bay only by the power of my mind." A hurled pickle exploded against the tent post, spattering Valentino's brow, but he continued unfazed. Martin cowered between his legs. "You see this, do you not?" he called out. "The beast is entirely under my sway. Were I not present to command this animal, each of your sad lives would be at risk." Martin sniffed the air for a moment, then daintily cacked up a pungent wad of musk eel. Zloty quickly hustled the pair offstage, applauding wildly.
"Wonderful job!" he said to Valentino. "The majestic terror of the animal world, et cetera!"
"But is that booing I hear?" said Valentino. "Do they not comprehend the delicate mastery, the bloodbath narrowly averted?"
"Booing? Just the opposite! They are chanting 'Martin Buuu-ren' — the ultimate homage," said Zloty. Valentino brightened, and Zloty hurried back into the lights.
Bruce and Sharon were next on the lineup, but the spotlight remained empty after Zloty's introduction. I ran backstage to find them furthering the argument that began sometime shortly before their wedding and then persisted long after their divorce, now consuming every waking moment, a boundless epic of interleaved grievance. The flavor of today's debate seemed to concern body hair — whose body, and whether too much or not enough, it wasn't clear. I shoved them through the curtains into the ring and they began whipping tedfruits at each other, each catching a prickly orb and hurling it back at the other in a single motion. Their juggling was flawless as always, a blur of whirling fruit, and the crowd stirred into something like applause. Bruce turned to bow, and Sharon seized the opportunity to pelt him with three tedfruits thrown from a single hand, which nailed him simultaneously in his face, chest, and niblets. He crumpled and let out a slow, mournful whine, and I dragged Sharon into the wings before he could retaliate.
Zloty rushed into the ring to announce Dieter, a mountain of rippling muscle who marched into the spotlight with an enormous tree stump nestled under one arm. He set the stump on the ground, gently, almost lovingly, though it must have weighed a couple hundred pounds. The audience leaned forward, eager to finally get their money's worth with a few verifiable Feats of Strength. Dieter squared his shoulders and bowed his head, summoning some deep reserve of will. He then squatted and reached out with both arms, almost as if he were grasping some invisible rounded shaft hovering in the air above the stump. The spectators collectively squinted, suspense blurring into confusion. What they didn't know but I did, wincing in anticipation, was that he was grasping an invisible rounded shaft. Dieter had recently announced that he would be transitioning from his traditional strongman act into Continental mime theory — or, in his words, "the eternal poetry of the human form." The thing he was doing now was a routine he had just developed: "Chopping Down Tree, Lifting Heavy Trunk." It consisted of him pretending to chop down an imaginary tree, followed by him pretending to lift the imaginary trunk. The actual physical stump was Dieter's one concession to reality — "the animating spark," he claimed.
The crowd's confusion bled into boredom and then anger as Dieter again and again "swung" the "ax" into the "tree," his face contorting with effort, muscles slick with sweat. By the time of his hammy "Timber!" bit, the audience was openly heckling. Dieter tried to ignore it, but I could see his lip beginning to tremble. A family-size tub of sauerkraut exploded near his feet, and he ran for the wings. The crowd jeered his departure, and the old canvas tent grew muggy with sweat and smoke and accumulated resentment. The mood was dark, darkening.
And then Zloty emerged, wandering into the middle of the ring, entering the spotlight in a halo of dust and smoke. He held his hat close to his chest, his eyes bright and searching, like a child lost in a market square, separated from his mother. If it sounds maudlin, it was, but it was just enigmatic enough to perplex the regulars for a moment. Their boos subsided as Zloty crossed the stage, my spotlight lagging slightly behind. I winced yet again, knowing what was coming next: a seventeen-minute reenactment of the life of the herpetologist Etienne Stratford-Hicks, depicted via classical clownery — Zloty's passion project. (It's not that he didn't care whether the crowd was entertained or enraged; he just wasn't very good at telling the difference.) He was trying out the bit for the very first time, and these bumpkins were going to tear him to shreds.
Excerpted from The Pickle Index by Eli Horowitz, Ian Huebert. Copyright © 2015 Eli Horowitz. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Day One: We Got Him,
Recipe Name: Hollow Gherkins,
Day Two: Airborne Pustules,
Recipe Name: Brined Snouts,
Day Three: Quick, Effective, and Usually Bloodless,
Recipe Name: Hundred-Year Shrimp,
Day Four: Mortal, Rumpled, and Glum,
Recipe Name: Cake-Fudge Dippin' Stix,
Day Five: Our Luminous Beacon of Whatever,
Recipe Name: Salty-Sour Egg Kissers,
Day Six: Minor Leakage,
Recipe Name: Scouse Wallies,
Day Seven: I Must Accept Some Blame,
Recipe Name: Solid-Lump Bachelor Relish,
Day Eight: Mad and Jealous and Horny,
Recipe Name: Rotted Cabbage,
Day Nine: Your Design, Your Vote, Your Whim,
Recipe Name: Jar,
Day Ten: A Brown, Farty, Toxic Cloud,
Recipe Name: __________,
The Full Pickle Index Experience,
A Note About the Author,
A Note About the Artist,
Also by Eli Horowitz,