As I mentioned recently, my first short story collection BAR SCARS recently came out on Snubnose Press. What I didn’t mention was that my homeboy Richard Thomas had his first short story collection, HERNIATED ROOTS, come out on Snubnose a week later. Though not planned at all, I thought it was very fitting. I came up with Richard, in a manner of speaking. We’ve published in many of the same magazines, we’ve edited each other’s stories for years, we have our first novels on the same press (albeit the same now-shuttered press.) The long and short of it is that we know the other’s work very well, so we thought it’d be nice to review each other’s collection. His review of BAR SCARS is posted here. Instead of talking about each story, I chose the ones that really exemplified something in his writing that I enjoy. On some stories I ramble longer and others I practice what I tell my students: Be concise. All of them, though, show something pretty special.
A brief caveat before going into this: Much of this review is very positive, but rest assured that it’s no easy back-pat for a friend. Behind closed doors, before these stories were published, we tore into them viciously, and probably bruised some egos along the way, but did it for the sake of the story. And really, isn’t that what friends are for?
A man meets a girl in playing pool in a bar and it all goes downhill from there. This story is an example of what Richard does best, creating that interplay between inference and action, the perceived bleeding over into the actualized. It’s not even a question of which one exists as much as which one you’d rather exist, which is possibly more unsettling than the story itself. While the narrative itself is compelling—what more can you ask for in noir than a hot chick and inevitable self-destruction? —the quick mental flash the protagonist has at the end shines a new light on everything. It’s one of those sleight-of-hands that cause you to reevaluate the story on a second, third and fourth read.
Your Enemies Will Devour You
Besides being a wrenching story of moral decay and loss, Enemies has one of the best lines of the whole collection, wonderful because of its disarming simplicity: ‘She is like an old pair of gloves—soft and supple, giving and familiar, torn and abused.’ Comparing a woman to a pair of old gloves—and particularly a love interest who is supposed to arouse us—is a risk to begin with. There are a ton of ways it can go awry. But the sentence just unfurls in this unexpected way, each paired-comparison deepening the understanding of this character. It’s so simple but so effective, like all great writing.
Later in the story, the protagonist utters a line that could almost be the thesis of the collection: ‘I cannot stop drinking so I don’t even try.’ It’s not because this collection, or Richard’s work in general, is populated by scores of drunks, but more that it focuses on people who recognize their internal darkness and embrace it. Though they might try to put a nice face on for the outside world, they never forget who they are, no matter how much they try to drink, snort, fight or fuck it into submission.
Even later in the story, he ups the ante again. With golf club in hand, he waits for his boss to leave work. One shot to the head knocks him down, the protag goes to work, but not on the head. ‘I beat his back like a dusty rug.’ I write a fair amount of depraved stuff, but this line really chills me. Part of it is the simplicity I spoke of earlier—this sentence is only eight words if you count the article ‘a’—but the chill runs much deeper. Part of it is the juxtaposition of this hyper-violent act right up against the domesticity of cleaning the rug that sits in your living room. What really gets me about it, though, was something that I didn’t fully realize until I’d read the story four or five times: How long do you have to beat someone on the back to kill them, and what other kinds of noises are made during that beating? With all the lush descriptions that Richard writes, it’s these short, sharp ones that cut through that lovely haze and fishhook you in the gut.
Last thing about this story: I love this story because, like with a lot of his work, we slip between mania and violent reality, only in this instance, I didn’t realize until the last line what the story is: A perverse love letter to a son.
Bird in Hand
This is a lovely little twist, the double-double cross. Each time I read it, I think about the ending of A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s one of my favorite endings of all time, because everyone thinks they’re winning, but in actuality everyone is losing. Similar feeling here. It’s also, as a recent transplant to the ‘burbs, a nice subversion of the Suburban American Dream. The dialogue crackles, too.
This is an exercise in how many different ways there are to say ‘red’ and how those simple descriptions can color your understanding of a character. It also called back another example worth noting. Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman drink whiskey from a baby food jar in Capote is one of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed. A glass jar is nothing by itself, but this glass jar is imbued with so much emotional weight that it hurts to watch. Same with the red barn in this story. I won’t ruin it for anyone, but by the time you understand what the significance of the barn is, it really deflates you, knowing that this barn will recur for days and days and days.
It’s not a flashy story, but a quiet and tense examination of a man’s disintegration. This harkens back to what I was talking about in Enemies. So, I guess in that vein, it’s not so much a disintegration of man but an acceptance, maybe even a dark enlightenment. My point is, this is what it’s like to watch someone die.
On a little side note, part of this stuff was chopped out by the editor, which Richard then rewrote and sent to Shotgun Honey. It’s interesting to read the two alongside each other because you can see the threads crossing between, yet they remain separate.
The blurring between reality and fantasy/delusion/hallucination is a common theme in the collection, and this story is a shining example. Looking at it from an analytical perspective, Descent is really interesting for the sub-genre explored here that could be adjacent to mystery, where instead of investigating ‘who they are’ we’re investigating ‘what they are.’
The story starts with ‘She haunts my dreams’ and ends with ‘I never ask why.’ The border between worlds/states reminds me of a tropical waterfall, in that the underside—a dark, protected cave—and the outside—a lush lagoon ringed by a throbbing jungle—are kept separate only by running water. Standing on one side, you can easily stuck your hand through and reach the other. It might be an ecstatic sensory experience, and it might rip your arm out of your shoulder and pull you under.
Tinkering with the Moon
This is just beautiful, top to bottom. It’s probably my favorite story in the collection. It starts with a simple premise: A young boy copes with dysfunctional and absent parents by building sculptures with Tinker Toys. The way the emotion is handled though completely gutted me. It mixes the painfully real with the emotion of the ethereal and leaves you wondering what you just experienced. Actually, it doesn’t leave you wondering. You don’t care what you’ve just experienced. It leaves you wanting to nestle down inside that feeling, close your eyes and just let it envelop you.