All the stories were pretty good this month. There's almost nothing to criticize. What fun is that for a reviewer?
However, (Remember? There's always a "however."), there were a few things. In Kevin Doyle's "Deliberates," the narrator is awakened by the train, stumbles into the kitchen for a drink of water, looks out the window, and then walks outside to the fence. Does he sleep in his clothes? Or does he walk out there in his pajamas? Barefoot, slippers, or does he sleep in his shoes, too?
Details are important. The reader can get distracted from a good story because of the absence of one little detail. Mr. Doyle has made this story down-to-earth and realistic, with plain conversational language. He has even included the detail of closing the door loudly so his neighbor would know of his presence. That was a nice touch. So, really, we need the detail of his clothing.
The use of realistic and straight-forward wording is appropriate for a story that is mostly about the awful inertia of moving trains. That the old man's disability was mental rather than physical is approached in a clever side-ways manner: "Didn't do nothing," he replied. "Just took the disability and hung it up." This is followed moments later by this exchange:
"Did you get hurt in a wreck?" I asked out of typically morbid curiosity.
"A wreck, yeah. Not sure if you'd say I’m the one got hurt."
"Get this straight, son. In a freight train wreck, the folks in the train never, but never, are the ones hurt."
I mention the language in "Deliberates" because the use of language is the common theme of this month's review.
In "Cooling and Heating," a literary story by Dara Cunningham, the language is much softer and sweeter than in "Deliberates." The author expresses a sort of soft contentment by using words like "somnolent," "wistfully." And there’s that absolutely great sentence: "Yes, in the ten minutes before my father got home we behaved as though our house was a speakeasy; frantically turning over the tables before the vice squad burst inside."
"Crushed Velvet" by Hunter Markham is another literary story. (I wonder why not "Crushing Velvet," which I thought fit the content.) It is very much like "Cooling and Heating." The tone is different, and the POV also, but they both examine a woman's present in light of her past. And again the use of language reflects the mood and tone: "Her voice croaks and sometimes cracks underneath the weight of words. When this happens it sounds like someone crushing glass under a heavy piece of cloth." No soft contentment there! But great use of language.
And definitely no literary story with "The Donut is Coming." This is a story about one of those "crazy people" that all towns seem to have. Here again the language helps set the tone. It is a sad and haunting tale, and Sherri Collins sets those perimeters with two powerful statements: “The doughnut is coming,” she whispered, her voice wet with tears. “It’s coming, and it’s going to get me.” And then, “It will suck me up in the sky. It will suck me up like an alien ship.” Her eyes stared past him at unseen horrors. Laura is presented as a sympathetic figure. But after the storm, and the ensuing clean-up, the language changes to something just a little more matter-of-fact. Rhonda's comment: "She ate Kleenexes and peed in Wal-Mart’s dressing room. The sheriff picked her up a half dozen times for indecent exposure. I felt sorry for her and her mom, but she was a nutter.” No longer an object of sympathy, but one of derision. And Laura is now consigned to the past tense.
When the word comes that the hurricane is headed right for them, I knew what the donut was. I'm not sure if this is a weakness in the story, or a strength. Sam's revelation was no surprise, but it was a satisfactory confirmation of my own insight.
One little detail did bother me. Since the author lived in Hurricane Alley for years, I hate to mention it...but I will. The store staff had to be ready for people in desperate need of bread and milk. Why those two items? Especially, why milk? If they can expect to have the power out for a day or two, it seems to me the last thing they'd want is milk. Bottled water or boxed juice drinks would make more sense, wouldn't they?
"Confession is Good for the Soul" by Katie Winkler is a good little mystery story that manages to get the confession first and the solution last. The language again is perfectly appropriate. There are no beautifully descriptive phrases, no poetry in prose form. The language is blunt, direct, and standard, as befits a police station.
I did notice one small inconsistency—I noticed it on my third or fourth reading, so it's certainly not glaring. Near the end Karen tells Conrad he kept Donavan"...locked in a basement most of the time until you needed him to commit the crimes.” But earlier Mrs. McKinnish mentions that she has talked to Donavan "a few times." Of course, those times could have been when he was just leaving to commit robbery.
"Town and Gown" by Eryk Pruitt may be the orchid in this bouquet, though I did wonder where "gown" fit. This is a story with memorable characters, very memorable and graphic actions, and two distinct questions: how to get the dog out of the hole and what kind of retribution, if any, would be visited upon the driver of that gold four-door. The first question is answered...though I have to wonder if a young boy would be that casual about handing a man his severed fingers. The second question will be addressed, but it is unknown if it will be resolved.
The language used for this story is the most significant of all. The use of colloquialisms is just right: "You reckon to come out of that hole, pooch?" and"Standing there, Horace wondered what in shit he was supposed to do." The story is told in third person, but it is unmistakably Horace's thoughts and words, in Horace's own personal dialect. This also makes the use of "gown" in the title curious. Horace is unlikely to think of the word. He'd be more likely to call something a fancy dress. I wanted to highlight one other sentence, just because I liked it so much:"There was a ferocity that frankly, Horace felt hadn't been there previous, neither to the dog nor Bob but there were both of them, growling and whimpering and wishing they had never met the other and suddenly Horace heard what sounded like leather ripping and Bob was up out of the hole and relieved of the weight of two of his digits."
The use of this kind of wording also allows the reader to see Bob's loss of two of his fingers as the inevitable results of impractical ignorance rather than any kind of personal tragedy. If there is a victim of that exchange, it seems to be more the dog than the man.
Expert use of regional or temporal dialect and dialog can put a real polish on a story. One of Page and Spine's regular contributors, Lee Allen Hill, is outstanding in this particular technique. And Mr. Pruitt has done an excellent job here.
The kind of language the author uses to tell the story can be as important as the story itself, for the words used, and how they're employed, sets the tone. The colloquial expressions in "Town and Gown" might work in "The Donut is Coming," but the tone of the story would be completely different. And the descriptive poetry of "Cooling and Heating" or "Crushed Velvet" would be as out of place in "Town and Gown" as a cummerbund on Horace's overalls. The economical wording of "Confession is Good for the Soul" could be used for the two literary stories, but those stories would be colorless, and the women in them would not touch the reader.
If those alternate language choices had been employed, though, we'd never know it because the stories would not be accepted. The language wouldn't be right, and so neither would be the stories.
♦ Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.