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The Pickle Index

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Paperback, FSG Originals, 2015
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Eli Horowitz

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The Pickle Index is full of life and everything else—it’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.”
—Miranda July

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 Burford—where both the cuisine and the economy, such as they are, are highly dependent on pickled vegetables—laughter 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 troupe—a morose contortionist, a strongman who’d rather be miming, a lion tamer paired with an elderly dog—a 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 end—leaving 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 twists—and an innovative, exhilarating storytelling experience.

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An excerpt from The Pickle Index

Day One


“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 handsmithed 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), f i led 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.





  • SOURCE CITIZEN 
  • [Flora Bialy] 

  • RANK 
  • [28,698]

  • RECIPE NAME

  • [HOLLOW GHERKINS] 


  • INGREDIENTS
  • [Cucumbers; cuke-mites; air] 

  • INSTRUCTIONS 


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 f i re. 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 bowtied 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.


  • “This novel takes absurdity to new heights and reflects the author's McSweeney's roots, but for all its silliness, it is at its heart a tale of hope and friendship.”

    Julia Smith, Booklist
  • The Pickle Index is full of life and everything else-it'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.”

    Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man
  • “You know when you find a book that feels original and fresh and weird in just the right way? The Pickle Index is such a book. Eli Horowitz has created a carnival world a little like that amazing place Katherine Dunn took us to in Geek Love. But this book has more laughs. It's a crazy caper!”

    Arthur Bradford, author of Turtleface and Beyond
  • “[The Silent History] handsomely fashions a relationship between digital and print media; but most of all this is a compelling story about difference, rights and power.”

    Richard House, The Guardian
  • “Ingenious . . . [The Silent History is] a richly textured vision of a dystopian future.”

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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