In the opening story of Caleb J. Ross’ new collection, the main character invents the term charactered pieces as a euphemism for diamonds with obvious cracks and flaws. In many ways Lori is a charactered piece herself – mostly due to the foot of her fetus-in-fetu sister that protrudes from her belly. Then of course there is mom, a bit of a flawed gem herself, who had half-her face blown off in a beer-commercial mishap. Yet, she seems convinced that somehow all the defects can be covered up, if only by glops of makeup.
That opening tale served as a nice introduction to the off-kilter, macabre, black-sense of humor that made me instantly like most of the stories in Charactered Pieces. The people who stumble and wander through Ross’ stories, much like Lori’s diamonds, have obvious flaws, glaring even. It’s an ugly humanity but one that’s too real to dismiss. Take the divorced, ex-drug-addict, father who slaves away as the lone gringo in a Chinese kitchen. He’s too angry, too bullheaded, and too self-centered to take responsibility for his mistakes. He views them as unavoidable obstructions that he had no more control over than the snow storm that starts a series of unfortunate events. As he says midway through the tale, “Mother Nature doesn’t want a person to live.” Where Ross keeps this from becoming cliché is his compassion for the characters. There is beauty in the flaws, or at least humanity.
The prose is punchy and has a great rhythm to it, especially when the stories are told in first person. Ross nails his character’s voices, so you can feel yourself sitting in a bar and hearing the grim tales first hand. “Charactered Pieces,” “The Camp,” and “An Optimist is the Human Personification of Spring” — the best of the stories where you can’t help being drawn into the lives of the narrators — are worth the cover price alone.
Charactered Pieces is not for the meek. If you want relatable characters, stay the hell away. Ross’ characters confront rather ingratiate. And that is what makes them live and breathe so well.