Every once in a while, a writer comes along with an offbeat vision that gets the world just right, tilts it just enough so that you can laugh along at our common, bemused humanity, see it in a new, appreciative way, lifted out of everyday dullness and irritation. Cooley Windsor is just such a generous, original storyteller, and Visit Me in California is a collection that is filled with wonders.

We’ve all had one of those days, like the narrator of “The Last Israelite in the Red Sea,” whose story begins, “I wore the wrong shoes for this. The last days have been so exciting, though, it’s hard to plan ahead.”

And we’ve all had high hopes and grand ambitions, just like the creator of “The Omega Notebook,” a playbook for Judgment Day: “The judgment will follow the awards. After that the lambs will stay with us, the goats will be swept away. This is the last thing the goats will see that’s pleasant, so please make an all-out effort to make this thing nice.”

Windsor is that rare writer who combines sharp and inventive wit with all-out big-heartedness, whether he’s channeling Homer or the friend of an AIDS victim or Medusa or the Witch of Endor or Lot (“how I pine for cliffs of pure white salt and wish I had looked back too”). His stories are complex little wonderlands, occasions for gasps of awe and outright laughter. But they are reverent, spiritual and life-affirming in the way the best art always is.

At the end of “An Earthquake Pedagogy,” he writes, “This is our backup, in case training fails. Stand on the beach wobbly and new, and practice coming back to life. Wave your arms. Keep singing the song. Come back to life. Do it several times. Remember, the best way to learn is by doing.”

In “The Art of War,” Epeios, creator of the Trojan Horse, talks about his craft. “That’s your mark, just like when you write your name at the bottom. The way you are is as if you have honey smeared on your hands and it gets on everything you made. Sticky and sweet and you — you learn to recognize it and that’s your mark.”

Cooley Windsor makes his mark with Visit Me in California; once you learn to recognize it, you’ll be looking for it everywhere, moved by his sweetly hopeful, yearning sensibility.

–Susan Larson,
The Times-Picayune

The first sentence of Windsor’s short-story collection reads: “I wore the wrong shoes for this.” As inauspicious a first line of fiction as could be imagined, except the “this” makes all of the difference. The narrator is the titular “Last Israelite in the Red Sea,” and he’s finding it difficult to keep up with Moses in the “oozy path” of the parted Red Sea. He eventually stumbles into the wall of water: “I’m going to drown, I thought. What an awful fate for a desert dweller.”

Throughout, Windsor toys with the everyman emotions of some of history’s greatest stories. Homer brags to a bartender that his father told him he’d never make money as a poet. Medusa awaits Perseus’s slaying, fretting over what to tell her snakes. He plays a lot of these moments for laughs, as when Lot regrets not gazing back across Sodom as it was destroyed: “The most exciting time in my life, and I didn’t see a thing.” The chuckles come easily, even if, at times, not much follows thereafter.

Windsor really shines when he steps outside of rewriting the classics. In “Midgie,” a man baby-sitting his six-year-old niece accidentally runs over her dog on his way to pick her up from school. He doesn’t tell her what he’s done, figuring he’ll let it be a lesson to her, justifying to himself that she won’t learn enough about disappointment at home. In “Explaining Angels to Your Neighbor’s Son,” a man prepares his neighbor’s kid by disabusing him of the notion of angels as agents of peace. It’s this dichotomy that reminds us most of Donald Barthelme: The “normal” characters grapple with issues larger than they can handle, and the larger-than-life characters can’t get a handle on the small stuff. As Homer would say, “Ain’t that always the way.”

–Jonathan Messinger,
Time Out Chicago

“The breadth of Windsor’s imagination paired with his skill for wit and wordplay brings to mind writers such as Amy Hempel and Aimee Bender. These stories give new and devastating insight into what it means to yearn and what it means to falter; they commit the rare and essential accomplishment of exposing their characters as wounded, flawed, and wholly human.”

— Heather Dewar,
Booklist, July 2008 (starred review)

“San Francisco poet Windsor’s punchy, edgy briefs find his characters often caught in Homeric and Old Testament entanglements. “The Last Israelite in the Sea” imagines a protagonist running after Moses after the Red Sea miraculously parts, feeling rapturous but also terrified, barefoot and unable to swim, that he won’t make it to shore. “The Art of War” finds various Homeric characters in painfully human situations, such as Paris, steeped in pornography as a youth and unable to consummate his desire for Helen because her beauty only underscores his imperfections, or Achilles, accidentally shot by a farm boy in the chest rather than in the heel. Some selections have a poignant memoiristic feel, as in the elegiac “I’ll Be You,” in which the friend of a dying gay man in San Francisco has to make choice that places him between his friend and his friend’s caring Tulsa mother. Windsor’s stories possess the startling, memorable quality of the brightest fiction.” (Aug.)

Publishers Weekly, June 2, 2008

“Cooley Windsor’s California is vast enough to contain the Red Sea and Baton Rouge, Tulsa and ancient Troy. His Californians include Moses, the witch of Endor, the fourth Wise Man (who died on his way to the creche), Flannery O’Connor, and David Wojnarowicz. Here, California dreaming includes you and me. It’s a big place–strange and original. This is miracle fiction.”

— Lawrence Rinder,
author of Art Life

“Cooley Windsor presents an original vision through an unusual and lovely structure: assembling sustained narratives from a series of flash fictions. Visit Me in California is an invitation you should accept.”

— Luis Herrera,
City Librarian of San Francisco

“It’s not often a story collection comes along that is this funny and inventive. Rich with a kind of bruised wisdom, Cooley Windsor has written a book filled with the stuff of life, all its foibles and longing and absurdity transformed into something entirely beautiful. Visit Me in California is a remarkable, deeply affecting piece of work.”

— Matthew Iribarne,
author of Astronauts and Other Stories

Visit Me in California is a collection of very beautiful stories—stories imbued with a strange wit and soft lyricism. Cooley Windsor offers an extraordinary palimpsest of biblical and classical tales, exploring the interior life of the man who built the Trojan horse and imagining a prostitute who finds Achilles dead. Small details explore the visceral within these tales—the cut and bleeding feet of people fleeing the pharaoh across Moses’s parted Red Sea bed. A mysterious and sublime writer, Windsor offers an uncanny accounting of families, faith, and survival in modern times as well. His stories investigate with a singular charm how we understand what it means to be human—they are perfect while being unlike anything one has ever read.”

— Leslie Carol Roberts,
author of The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica

“In Cooley Windsor’s delightful stories, life poses as rehearsal or rehearsal poses as life: a family practices their mother’s death, a straggling Israelite pretends to be Moses, Homer entertains and laments from a barstool. Allegorical, darkly funny, and provocative, the voices in this remarkable collection ring so true you’ll weep, but as Omar the Mourner notes, ‘If you’re not careful, you can waste all your best funeral songs on yourself.'”

— Nona Caspers,
author of Heavier Than Air