The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

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MAR 2012 Issue

Status of Limitations

Lou Beach
420 Characters—Stories
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

In the 21st century when e-books rule, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt plays to a bigger room with the print edition of 420 Characters. Upon first viewing, it’s immediately evident, the publisher bet big on Lou Beach’s 176-page work of fiction, which began as Facebook status updates, limited to 420 characters—including spaces and punctuation. While the general populace largely kept their posts to the antics of their pets, dining details, and devilish links to humorous video clips, Beach was crafting fine, mini stories that left his readers wanting more.

But before the tales can lure new readers into the book, its cover seals the deal with a vibrant, scarlet cloth binding offset against a gold foil embossed type treatment, finished with a belly wrapper hosting an alluring, surreal, four-color collaged illustration of a hybrid animal: The body of a full grown German Shepherd, paired with the stilt-like legs of a tree-sitting bird, also created by Beach. Pull out this book on the subway, at a coffee shop, or on a park bench, and it is sure to start a conversation, whether it’s desired or not.

In 420 Characters, Beach has crafted a serious work of fiction, leaving plenty to discuss. Beach—a prolific artist and illustrator whose work has appeared in Wired, the New Yorker, and Time—understands the power of compact storytelling. And his yarns are as varied and lush as his illustrations, which appear throughout the book:

The hotel was on fire, the guests marooning out front in evening clothes, pajamas, wrapped in towels. The building was saved from major damage by an efficient and powerful overhead extinguisher system that also managed to ruin furniture and clothes and TVs and books and laptops. A sprinkler intervention took place in room 807 as I spread an ounce of coke on the table.

420 Characters, the perfect fiction nibbler—like a beluga-caviar-crème-fraîche-hors-d’oeuvre—delivers a rich intensity, leaving one amazed that such a delight can be found in so tiny a package.


    To hear audio recordings of a selection from 420 Characters, read by Jeff Bridges, Ian McShane, and Dave Alvin, visit


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

All Issues