When stories present obvious errors, poor expression, plot holes, deficient or cardboard characters, vague settings, and other assorted flaws, reviews are easy to write. Good and well-written stories present a tougher job. As this year has progressed, the editors of Page and Spine, and their authors, have made this job increasingly difficult.
November is the month for Veterans' Day, so it's no surprise that three of the stories involve military service in some way. None of those stories take place in this century.
The first, Chicken by Eric Ullerich, takes place sometime in the 1950's. The narrator, a WWII veteran, has a seven-year-old son who is currently fascinated with that war, and there's a certain pride he holds that his father was involved. He would even like to inflate his father's role by casualty counts. Failing that, perhaps his father at least saw some dead bodies? Anything that would make Daddy a more important cog in the war machine.
But Daddy wanted nothing to do with killing. He actually did all right in the war, from one point of view. He met his wife, did work he enjoyed, and it is implied that he did okay financially.
He never killed any soldiers.
He mentions only one date. The day he killed.
That incident has left a lasting mark. He starts the story by describing the chicken, calling it a once-alive hunk of meat. Then at the end the boy, just before he dies, puts his hand over his chest and the wrist collapses like a chicken wing.
But it is descriptive details of the dead boy and his son that drive the point home. His son: ...his milky face..., the German boy: ...the raw skin milky white.... Also, his son: ...his eyelashes touching both the underside of his eyebrow and the tops of his cheeks. And then the soldier: ...blinking lids with long lashes....
This is a good story. I did notice two little points that could be different. The lesser of the two is simply after the German boy is shot he falls on his face. Shortly thereafter it is clear he is lying on his back, and nowhere is there a mention of him being turned over.
The other inconsistency is at the beginning. At the start we're told that his wife is sitting on their outdoor couch. After their son goes back to play and the narrator goes into the back yard his wife is sitting on a floral patterned cushion in a wrought iron chair. Nothing says she couldn't have changed her seat, but without an acknowledgement of that change, it looks like a mistake.
The second story featuring the military is the post-civil war piece, The Long Walk, by Raymond Chilensky. This is a more philosophical story than Chicken and speaks to current events more than that one as well.
Unlike the narrator in Chicken, this man killed many and is untroubled by it. What troubles him is that it may have been all for nothing. And while he fears that the war has changed nothing for Caleb and James, he is nervous but proud of the changes it has made on him. I really liked the imagery here: Or would she see a man who, only months before, would casually kick the corpses of slain enemies off of the end of his bayonet?
Another good touch was his comment that he faced some of the bravest fighting men in the world while fighting the Confederacy. It shows that although he hated the idea of slavery, he had respect for the men that fought for that idea.
The irony of the situation is demonstrated in the confrontation on the streets of New Philadelphia. The narrator demonstrates his calm courage—and willingness to kill—that have been instilled in him by battle. Yet his friend—like a brother—has not changed at all. Fear still chains him. The narrator speculates that it will take many years for attitudes to change. The War was only the first step. We know now, of course, that while the fear and anti-Negro attitudes diminished slowly in the North, it would take over one hundred years for significant changes to be realized in the South, and then it took action by the federal government to enforce the changes in action.
It is clear still, one hundred-fifty years after the war, that attitudes in the South have stubbornly resisted the change.
Another good tale and I have no criticisms.
The last of the stories involving the military is The Thanksgiving Offensive by Richard Zwicker. This one does not involve fighting or killing. The actual push of the story is about the narrator's father and brother, the interaction between the two, and the consequences.
I liked the narrator's description of himself in relation to the Thanksgiving dinner. It reminded me of me at that age. I was always the last one to leave the table. And the family gatherings then and at Christmas were always important.
I have no complaint about the writing itself. But I do have a criticism of the history. The portrayed meal is in 1973, and the father wonders why Steve wants to "get your ass sent to Viet Nam." Also, Larry finds it insane that anyone would offer up his life to the Nixon war machine.
When I first read this I was bothered by the time. I'm just the right age to have served in Viet Nam, but I had a student deferment. And, in case anybody wonders, my draft number was six higher than the highest they called when I was nineteen. The timeline did not match my (often faulty) memory. So I looked it up.
In January of 1973 Nixon announced the end of offensive action against North Viet Nam and American involvement officially ended several months before Thanksgiving of that year. So Steve would not have been sent to Viet Nam.
A writer who is presenting a fictional story in a historical context must be meticulous about the historical facts. In this case, simply dating the story in 1969 or 1970 would have been historically accurate.
Brian Kayser's The Hoarder has no military reference, but there is still a battle in progress. It is a battle against the theft of time. I thought the title "The Thief" would have been more appropriate. Michael steals time from everyone he encounters.
However, despite the first sentence, I have to wonder if Jason isn't the real focus of the story. The narrator never takes us into Michael's thoughts. We are told what Jason thinks, what Jason sees, how Jason feels, and not just about Michael's hoarding. We know how Jason feels about his divorce and his focus on getting over it. He is trying to get past it, yet he nurtures his thoughts about it, and his ex. It seems that he wants to brood and Michael takes that brooding time away.
I found the story depressing; perhaps that was its intent. I do think the author missed an opportunity. These words: ...his love handles hanging out gloriously in his tucked-in workout shirt... is really vivid. The word "gloriously" really gives it an impact. And he gives us a pretty good description of the bag boy, too. Mr. Kayser could have used more descriptive gems like that both for Michael and Jason.
But this is a pretty tightly-told story, so I really have no complaints....except that it was depressing.
The Letter gives us a first person look at one side of a battle—a battle for independence. This is the same battle the majority of children fight at some time in their early teens, and one which most of them lose. Unlike The Hoarder, though, this story by Glendaliz Comacho is just sad. The fourteen-year-old girl is caught in the prison tower of Mami's love. Great metaphor there.
There is no mention of another parent here; apparently Mami is raising her daughter by herself, which of course adds to the protectiveness the mother displays. She has no one else, and, worse, she has no one to help her if trouble finds her daughter.
The mixing of the Spanish with the English is good, too. It is realistic. And as for Ms Giulio, I wanted to slap her for using "like" so much in her speech. This story is pretty short, and so is my commentary. It manages to make the reader sympathetic to the girl and want to find a solution for her. It seems real, more like an article excerpt than a fictional presentation. That's good.
The Tiger's Abyss by Brad Perry inescapably reminded me of James Thurber's The Unicorn in the Garden. But this story is quite a bit longer and not at all humorous. It is reflective. The comfortable life "you" have led is suddenly fantastically, interrupted.
The use of second person to tell the story is unusual, though it is becoming more common. Some editors, at least in the speculative fiction markets, won't even consider such a story. But it is done well here.
Upon first and second reading I had the impression that "you" was a woman. The frayed brown slippers hugging your feet, and the nostalgic look into Brian's bedroom all seem womanly. The memories of the piano lessons and cooking dinner to Heart and Soul and falling asleep on the couch to the sounds of scales all struck me as motherly.
The complete and carefully crafted lack of any mention of a spouse helps keep "your" gender indefinite. I think the reflection that the frying pan was a wedding gift from twenty-five years ago, and wondering why "you" hadn't replaced it really nailed down, for me, the idea that the character is a woman.
But the author is male, so, on the third reading, I specifically looked for something that might reveal gender. Sadly, there was one: Just the sliding door now separates man from beast. So, despite my earlier assumptions, based on my own subjectively received clues, it is a man.
I would like this story better if that clue was missing, keeping the gender totally subjective to the reader. “Just the sliding door now separates you from this...” plus however he chose to describe it would have accomplished that.
It seems certain that the author has viewed a full-grown tiger up close, in a zoo, probably, and the impression it made upon him he has shared with us. I, too, have been only a glass-width from a full-grown tiger, and noted the huge power the beast possesses. But I've never managed an eye-to-eye.
Thank you, Brad, for sharing the tiger's abyss with us.
Besides Veterans' Day, November is home to Thanksgiving Day and we had a Thanksgiving story, a teen story, a hoarding story, a wild animal story, military stories, and not a turkey in the bunch.
What presents will the Christmas month present?
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.