Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto

Bill Gaythwaite

Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto

Gray Davenport, the protagonist of Joe Ponepinto’s novel Mr. Neutron (7.13 Books, 2018) is a ne’er-do-well political operative with some scruples. He also has a chip on his shoulder. His life is as dull as his name. Like the subatomic particle in the book’s title, Gray’s existence lacks electrical charge. His good intentions haven’t amounted to anything and he is woefully unappreciated by his incompetent employers and a wife who splatters paint on the walls of their home and calls herself an artist.

But when an eight-foot-tall stranger bursts onto the political scene of the fictional town of Grand River, shaking up the mayoral campaign and mesmerizing the electorate, Gray decides to investigate. Who is this lumbering freak with size 23 feet and a sinister sidekick named Reverend Hand? What follows is part detective story and part political romp (with a smattering of science fiction thrown in) all of it served up with sly wit and laugh-out-loud observations. Ponepinto has a particular knack for depicting small town power brokers and their minions. When invited to meet with Grand River’s elite at a private club, a lair designed with too much leather and exotic wood, Gray can’t help but envision

a swath of land as seen from the air, clear cut of its forest, stripped to the soil; a phalanx of dead cattle laid side by side—all to provide these men something nice to look at.

Ponepinto has a lot to say about influence peddlers and shameless manipulation within the political process, but he keeps the message light here, as the jokes and zippy double entendres keep on coming.  Moreover, Gray’s examination of the monster-like candidate soon becomes a journey of his own self-discovery and transformation. Ponepinto juggles the various twists to the plot with considerable skill and energy, leading to a surreal and satisfying ending.

Given our fractured and shocking political climate, where truth is stranger than fiction (almost on a daily basis) any attempt at cutting satire can seem like overkill, but Pontepinto’s funny, incisive book is a welcome contribution to the discussion.


Joe Ponepinto is the founding publisher and fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review, a nationally-recognized literary journal that has had selections reproduced in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, Best Small Fictions, and other notable anthologies. His stories are published in Crab Orchard Review, Fugue, The Lifted Brow, Lumina, 2 Bridges Review, and dozens of other literary journals in the U.S. and abroad. A New Yorker by birth, he has lived in a dozen locations in the U.S., and now resides in Washington State with his wife, Dona, and Henry the coffee-drinking dog. He is an adjunct writing instructor at Seattle’s Hugo House and Tacoma Community College.


Bill Gaythwaite is on the staff of the Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. Bill’s flash fiction piece, The Girl in the Movies, was published in Toasted Cheese in December 2013. His short stories and essays appear (or are forthcoming) in Subtropics, Grist, Alligator Juniper, Toasted Cheese, The Summerset Review, Superstition Review, Lunch Ticket and elsewhere. Bill’s work can also be found in the anthologies: Mudville Diaries and Hashtag: Queer. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. wgaythwaite[at]

The Girl in the Movies

Bill Gaythwaite

warner bros. water tower
Photo Credit: Fabian Gonzalez

My mother was released from her film contract the same day her tooth happened to abscess. That’s how she met my dad. He’d just opened a dental practice in Encino. It was 1956. After getting dropped from the studio, Ma had no interest in hustling for another one, so she eventually married the good-looking dentist, let her hair go back to its natural color and became a regular housewife. They had four sons in five years and settled in The Valley. Looking back, the combination of a rotten tooth and a scuttled movie career seems like the logical starting point for my parents’ divide and conquer relationship.

Ma had gotten a Hollywood screen test after winning the Santa Rosa beauty contest and that’s how she became a contract player at Warner Bros.—where she said they treated the fledgling actors like stupid, wayward children. Mostly she did bits and extra work, but once she had a couple of scenes as Doris Day’s peppy kid sister in a film set in snowy New England, though it was all shot on a Burbank soundstage.

At home Ma was like the other mothers we knew, in that she was occasionally exhausted and fed up, but she also did her best to see that my brothers and I didn’t end up concocting our own branch of the Manson Family. She wasn’t particularly diva-like, as you might have expected from someone who’d been in the business. My dad was the one given to angry scenes and stomping around in a theatrical fashion. He walked out on us when my brothers and I were teenagers, taking up in a predictable way with the dental hygienist from his office, though by that time it was the seventies in California and certain behaviors had stopped surprising anyone.

The Doris Day movie used to come on television sometimes. We all treated it like a family joke, an excuse for my brothers and me to gather around the set and howl at this early, unrecognizable version of Ma—her laboriously tweezed eyebrows, the shellacked and platinum hair, her “Gee Whiz!” line readings. It was fucking hilarious. She’d laugh with us, too, while we watched, but one time, before she caught my eye, I saw something mean and curious pass over her face. I didn’t have time to ask her about it, because almost immediately she’d adjusted her expression and recovered enough to crack, “Yeah, that’s me all right, the girl in in the movies.”


Bill Gaythwaite is the Program Coordinator for the University Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. His fiction has appeared in The Ledge, Third Wednesday, Alligator Juniper, Word Riot and elsewhere. His work is also included in Mudville Diaries, an anthology of baseball-themed essays and reminiscences published by Avon Books. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Email: wgaythwaite[at]