Good stories this month. That makes it harder to write a review column. But I suppose there's nothing wrong with compliments, and I can probably find something to be nit-picky about.
A common theme for four of July's stories was jobs. Quite a variety of jobs, too: Emergency Medical Technician, Mailman, Insurance Adjuster (and former gambler), and Boulder Pusher/King.
In three of those stories the job was abandoned due to the influence of another. Israel Bissell decides to take a temporary leave of absence to deliver something other than mail. The unnamed narrator abandons his job because his boss, who he finally admires at least a little, dies unexpectedly, probably from exertion. And King Sisyphus bails on his boulder-pushing after encountering Midas and the two make a deal. Midas also abandons his similar quest.
Israel Bissell Rides by Richard Zwicker is a period piece that does not read sentimentally, but has sentiment as its center theme. Sentiment comes in many forms. In this story the obvious one is Sam's wish to marry Anne, his sweetheart from long ago. There is also the implied sentimentality of Sam and Anne being both widowed. But Israel is also sentimental over a past accomplishment and Sam manages to scratch that itch just the right amount to inspire Israel to relive a bit of that accomplishment, in deed and purpose. The offered payment probably doesn't hurt either.
A few times already this year I've been critical of authors' attempts to add non-standard dialect into their stories; the primary criticism has been that it's not consistent. This story is now added to that list, even though it's an extremely minor transgression: “It ain’t that warm in here,” John complained. “Don’t you think that fireplace of yourn could use another log, Sam?” That "yourn" simply isn't worth the effort; "yours" would do quite well, and there's no other lapse into that odd dialect anywhere in the story, not by John or the other two. If a writer wants to use non-standard dialect for a character, (s)he should make sure there's enough dialog by that character to make it worthwhile and authentic.
I've mentioned before that Lee Allen Hill is excellent at using this device. The July 10th chapter of Coffee House Chatter provides a really super example of when and how to spice up a story with dialect. Easy readability is set aside for the authenticity of the unique dialog. If you're going to go for that, then go all the way. Immerse yourself in the dialect, hear it with your inner ear (and outer ear, too, if available), and really work on getting it right. Anything half-way just detracts from the quality of the writing. Except for that one tiny detraction, this story is well done.
Sometimes a story is about a character. In classic literature, Bartleby the Scrivener (Herman Melville) is one such literary portrait. Though in poetic form, Kipling's Gunga Din is another, and Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is still another. All three of these have one thing in common. The story about the one man is told in first person by another man. Lucas Ahlsen's Solitaire in the Stairwell (good title!) shares those features. Another feature shared by these four stories is that the subject of the story dies. Solitaire shares even more similarities with Bartleby. Both featured characters are involved with mundane and sedentary work, both die of natural causes, and their deaths are discovered by the narrators. And in both stories, the narrator speculates about the subject's earlier life in a sort of eulogizing soliloquy. Lucas Ahlsen's story is different from the other three in that his narrator walks away from the situation. Kesey's Chief Bromden runs away after suffocating the body of the lobotomized McMurphy, but he is looking forward to where he's going. Ahlsen's narrator is looking backward to where he's been.
The author uses metaphor and simile well: "The white shrubs of his eyebrows," "his voice scraped my ears like sandpaper," and "The files resembled a waterfall of broken lives." He does not over use them, so they seem natural and do what they're supposed to do: add to the descriptive nature of the story without calling attention to themselves. Another good story written well.
A Day in the Life of Sisyphus by Peter Wood is a light-hearted take on a mythological undertaking. The punishment of Sisyphus is recounted correctly, while the punishment of Midas is the author's invention. The most chuckle-worthy part of the story is that the two kings unmistakably, to the reader, demonstrate hubris as they convince Zeus they have learned their lessons. But as the ending hints, Zeus may not be done with them after all. But at least the two kings are going to get a vacation. Try as I might, I can find nothing to criticize.
Life Flight by Sean Schulz is the one story in which the worker likes her job and wants to do it better. It is a coming of age story that spans about five minutes. Courage is at the forefront of the characters. The injured girl is frightened and suffering but bearing it with stoic determination. Rachel is scared to do what she must. She is beset by self-doubt and it would be so much easier to just back out and let Scout take care of it.
People often need help to overcome their fear of failure and fear of the consequences that the failure may produce. Rachel does finally do what she must.
But Scout demonstrates courage also, for the life of the girl is her responsibility. If Rachel makes a tragic error, it is Scout's career on the line. Yet she never flinches, for she recognizes that she has a duty to Rachel as well as the patient.
This story did have a couple of flaws. The author tries to get a little too fancy. "The helicopter blades punished the sky with their deafening wind. The pilot, suave in his oversized helmet and black visor..." and, later, "Blades stormed above as she sliced between ribs and pressed the tube in." The descriptions are pretty good, but the helicopter blades and the pilot are only a barely peripheral part of the scene. In that second example especially, the picturesque reference to the blades distracts from the climactic action of Rachel meeting her challenge. A description of Rachel's expression or Scout's eyes, or even the breathing of the girl would make for better writing. These relatively unimportant (to the human drama) details actually detract from the primary focus of the tale. Had the story been a drama about hazards encountered in the flight, or the skill of the pilot, or even dangerous weather, these descriptive phrases would have added to the content. But in this story, that's not the case.
The other four stories are about dysfunctional relationships. The Shower by Rachel M. Barker is the only one of these relationship stories that offers hope for the future. I found it well written and engaging right up to the end. I found the last sentence incongruous and ill-fitting, like an angled two-by-four nailed carelessly onto the corner of an immaculate brand new garage.
"She felt clean." Clean of what, or from what? For that sentence to really fit, the author needed to use the "clean" metaphor, or its opposite, earlier in the story. Observations of how her urge to drink left her feeling dirty, or how the Rat King seemed to disseminate its dirt onto her, or even the irony of attending a shower that would leave her feeling unwashed and in need of a real shower. I did like the play on words, how the shower made Amy feel clean, but we just needed previous references to that theme to make that last sentence fit into the design, to have a purpose.
The Passenger by Stuart Turnbull is a literary piece with several subtleties fitted in to the narrative.
For starters, he mentions the radio hammering out Iggy Pop. One of Iggy Pop's songs was titled "The Passenger," so it gives at least a hint that that is the song on the radio. There's one thing wrong with that conclusion, though. "The local rock station is hammering out Iggy Pop and I bang the steering wheel in sympathy with the raw energy of a track older than I am." As we learn later, the narrator has been married for twenty-two years, which means he is, realistically, at least forty. "The Passenger," as of this year, is only thirty-eight years old. But Iggy was recording ten years before that, so perhaps it was a different song. I like the way the story is put together. The narrator's musings, full of metaphor and self-assurance contrast with the straight-forward complaints of the woman, and her words allow the reader to "hear" the sad anger in her voice and see the tears on her cheeks.
Another subtlety is that he is driving a muscle car, with a V8 engine: "...that ridiculous mid-life crisis of a car." But the man she leaves with is driving a Prius—the exact opposite of a muscle car. And with that last sentence it is revealed that she is the passenger.
I found Birthday Boy by Edoardo Albert to be slightly disturbing. That's a compliment. I'm sure the story was intended to disturb the reader. It is well done, with the revelation of James' true state of being revealed very gradually, until the truth dawns on the reader just what is happening, and what has happened in the past.
Chrissy is clearly delusional, yet she knows that she is. It is a delusion she holds dear and nurtures, yet it seems that it does not hamper her in her normal day-to-day life. Martin finds it uncomfortable, but tolerates it out of love for his wife. Besides, it's just one day.
A relationship can't get any more dysfunctional than the one shown us in The Ride by Jonpaul Taylor.
The first paragraph actually makes the whole story. "I knew it was a bad idea, leaving Susanna alone at home all pregnant and whatnot while I’m out looking for some new tail. If she knew what I got myself into, she’d kill me."
My first reaction was, "What an asshole!" The narrator gets no sympathy from the reader. Whatever he is getting, or going to get, he deserves it.
In between the self-recriminations he alternates between certainty that he can talk his way out of his predicament and certainty that he is going to die. The author builds the tension and then gives us a little surprise and a little revelation. But it is so logical! Who would be more likely to marry a drug dealing dirt bag like this than a mob boss' daughter? At first I thought that Susanna should be harsher with her words, more stereotypical of the wounded and vengeful woman. On further readings I changed my mind. Her continued use of a soft voice and the endearments was an excellent touch.
As I noted at the beginning, July offered eight excellent stories. They were just right for relaxing when you're home from work and not yet ready to venture back into the heat of the afternoon.
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.