Hotel du Jack is the debut collection from Dan Brotzel, who has spent the last few years racking up competition success that most aspiring writers would be envious of and which serves as a good guide on the quality for readers. In the past couple of years he has won the Riptide Short Story Competition and the Leicester Writes Competition, and been highly commended in the Manchester Writing School Competition. Hotel du Jack brings together 28 stories, frequently marrying style and substance to pull off a fresh, witty and insightful collection.
This is ultimately a book with plenty of emotion on show: one of the big themes running through the book is death, and specifically cancer. For all that this may sound like a narrow range from which to be drawing such a significant portion of a collection like this, he manages to consider it from a variety of angles, looking at the emotional impact on partners left behind, the trajectory of terminal illness and incorporating the disease into everyday life, or the challenge of talking to children about death. Brotzel is sensitive to the needs of his readers but also his characters in a way that fleshes them out properly. Without wanting to give anything away, it’s also often handled in a surprising manner that ultimately secures a significant pay-off without feeling gratuitous.
That is not to say that this is a sad book overall – Brotzel’s sharp eye leads to more than its fair share of wry, well-observed description and occasional laugh out loud moments, even within the stories touching on cancer and death, for example in ‘The Great Willie Whizzbang’. The tone is also lifted by an eye for detail of modern life that reaches right across this collection. There are references to #metoo, remainers, Meghan Sussex and The Greatest Showman.
But much of what Brotzel has to say about modern life is connected the challenges and joys of fatherhood, through a series of very well observed stories that in some way provide a tonal counterweight to the stories about cancer. These were the stories that spoke to me the most, perhaps in part reflective of my own current life as a father of two.
It’s a world that I definitely recognise as accurate, and also contains with what some may say are uncomfortable home truths – harried Dads try to ignore the pull of the smartphone when they are looking after the children, struggle to find activities to keep the kids occupied, and live up to expectation of their children and also their wives. In the story ‘Crumbs’ where a Dad is trying to do the school run and process feedback on a PowerPoint slide deck for work, he discovers that his wife:
‘had stuck up helpful notes with messages such as “Don’t forget Lilly’s swimming goggles” and “Ask Miss Hanley if Jake can go up a reading level.” The notes embarrassed him because a) they made him feel like a hopeless bloke who couldn’t organise basic family stuff himself, and b) he was utterly dependent on them for getting through the next hour and a half.’
Brotzel also clearly sees redemption for Dads, with the titular Jack, a surfer with ‘a six pack as vehemently articulated as a lobster’s tail’, two children and a lack of emotional intelligence, slowly undergoes a reframing of his masculinity over the course of a superbly meta piece of fiction.
These are not the limit of the collection’s focus, and Brotzel deploys other frames of reference and content covering superheroes, children’s entertainers and workplace sexism.
One thing that does mark out this collection as distinctive is the occasional use of restrictive forms for as settings for the stories, often in pieces that are only one or two pages short. ‘Who Is My Neighbour’ is a tale of a missing cat with an unexpected twist told through a local Internet forum which accurately picks up on the typed tics, conventions and trolling of this form of communication. The excellent ‘Listing to Port’ tells of a protagonists’ date night through a week’s worth of shopping lists. ‘Active and Passive Voice’ describes a woman’s relationship through a textbook exploration of English grammar:
The doer of a verb in a passive sentence is known as the agent. The agent is easy to spot because they are usually preceded by with or by. For example:  She’d often been told by her mates what a loser he was.
Within these shorter pieces Brotzel shows great awareness of the limitations of the form he has chosen to use, not allowing himself to take the joke contained within the format too far. He is also highly adept at using the format of these shorter pieces to achieve a dramatic emotional punch.
The subject matter and references build into a book that is very 2020, but the quality of his writing ensures that the stories here are also built to last. I am sure Hotel Du Jackis book that people will want to return to in future years.
James Holden has had his short stories published by Silver Apples Magazine and On The Premises, and performed by Liars League. He lives in a retirement village in north London with his wife and two children, despite only being in his thirties.
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