It’s probably no accident that so many of Denis Johnson’s characters find themselves in cars heading to nowhere. The misfits and sinners that populate his stories are lost, sometimes physically, but most often emotionally. They’ve succumbed to their past, which usually didn’t set them on a good path, so they can only keep driving forward even if its going in the wrong direction. The enthralling part of Johnson’s writing is that no matter how appalling we find the characters, we understand and sympathize with this motley crew of addicts, bad husbands, deadbeats, and alcoholics. Mostly because Johnson is able to show the reader how much those nine-time losers resemble us.
From the opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Denis Johnson ropes you in with his raw, stripped-to-the-bone prose. You feel as if Johnson has nervously gnawed down each of his lines, like a rough set of dirty fingernails, leaving pure and simple prose that can be ugly, beautiful, sick, and sad all in a single short sentence. Descriptions such as “I knew every raindrop by its name,” and “The blood ran off him in strings” knock you back with their ability to say so much with so little. Even when he gets more expansive, he makes every word count:
“Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground.”
What haunts you? Sitting there late at night, in the silence, while that beer on the table gets warmer, and the rollback of the years flashes before your eyes? In many ways, the tales in Alan Beard’s superb collection feel like ghost stories. Not in the traditional sense — no white spectres wandering the halls or loud rappings on the walls from unseen hands. Rather, the citizens of the council flats in and around Birmingham are all haunted by their own past. What could they have been? Or how could their lives have been better?
With razor sharp prose, a dry British wit, and fearless dedication to not pulling any punches on his characters, Alan Beard gives you the West Midlands in all its grim glory. Akin to great Japanese writers, Beard cuts his prose to the bone, not bothering to waste any words on showing off his writing skills. It’s important, as that style gives the stories much more character as well as imbuing them with that superb reserved understatement that is born and bred in citizens of the Midlands. Continue reading →
I’m not sure which came first: the photography or the writing. What I do know is that Kristin Fouquet’s love of photography infuses her storytelling. Her tales have that feel of old photographs you discover in a thrift store bin — you don’t know these people, but you can see their lives boiled down into that moment. It’s because of this that the stories in Rampart & Toulouse and her previous collection Twenty Stories never feel over-told. They unfold simply and capture that poignant moment for the character. You don’t need to know the rest. Everything is in that snapshot.
“Becoming Obsolete” and “Paris is the Pretty One” — two of the short stories in this collection that also includes a novella — both capture that quality in Fouquet’s writing. The former is a tale of refrigerators and New Orleans social hierarchy, the latter is a story of two sisters and a horror-show trip to Paris. For the characters in each, there is a line of demarcation, a point of no return that comes to them not as a sudden surprise but a moment they can only accept with resignation. The author doesn’t force them upon the reader, but with some confidence, lets us see what ultimately becomes obvious to the character, even if they are powerless to change that fateful day.
In all these stories, there are wonderful scenes that Fouquet conjures up, never forced, suddenly unraveling in the midst of a story. A woman standing in her bedroom window, watching a bottle of wine in she left in the courtyard, waiting for it’s intended recipient to appear. A Soprano, dressed in a robe and towel, waving her arms while practicing an aria in the privacy of her Paris apartment, unaware of the spectator watching her from across the street. A procession of ad hoc mourners singing “Sweet Sue Just You” as they march from the St. Louis cemetery in New Orleans, honoring a woman they never knew.
Like a perfect photograph, Fouquet’s stories leave one feeling as if they’ve only caught a glimpse of these lives, but that’s enough to tell the tale, and to know the fates.
Calling all eBook and lit enthusiasts: you can now get the eBook versions of both of my short story collections for just under $4. That’s right, my new collection, Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits and Sinners, is on sale for $2.99 and my previous collection, The Love Book, is available for the low, low price of only $.99. You can get them for your favorite reading devices including Kindle, iPad and iPhone, and Nook.
This is a bit of an experiment (for a limited time) to see two things: (1) are literature and short story readers as price sensitive as genre readers, and (2) are genre readers — many of whom champion independent authors in mystery, paranormal romance, and crime fiction — willing to jump out of their typical reading list. I don’t expect to hit any bestseller lists, but I suspect it might yield some interesting results (or prove me yet again to be a blasted idiot).
Click on the links below to get your ebooks. And it goes with out saying, if you like the stories in either book, be sure to post a review on the site you got it from or on any of the book sharing sites such as GoodReads, Shelfari, or LibraryThing.
It is a sad commentary on the state of the short story when a collection such as this is allowed to go out of print. After all, Dusk and Other Stories did win the PEN/Faulkner award when it was first released in 1989. And this collection did become a textbook for dedicated short story writers — maybe not as popular with the general reading public as Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but more of an insider’s pick, like the films of Sam Fuller. The sad fact is that I had to read a photocopy of one of the out-of-print editions that someone was gracious enough to loan me.
The main reason short story writers gravitate towards this book is the prose. Short, punchy and poetic. Salter can say more about a character in a few sparsely worded sentences than most writers can in an entire chapter. Salter wasn’t just hacking away at his sentences for pure economy, he was pairing down his prose to its barest bones, leaving only what he felt was utterly necessary. When writing coaches and teachers scribble “show don’t tell” or “don’t over-write” on countless stories, they are trying to turn their protégés into Salter. A character’s actions speak volumes. A few lines of dialogue become an entire biography. Continue reading →
The single-story e-book crusade continues with the second installment of my special summer releases available to readers for only $1.99 each. You can now download “The Metronome Winds Down” in PDF, Kindle, ePub, Mobi, Palm, or Sony reader format. Just think: for less than the cost of a cheap bottle of beer, you get yourself a nice gritty piece of storytelling.
Here is the plot: What would you do to keep your wife alive? If Pat can scrape together ten grand, he can buy his wife two more months. But he doesn’t have the cash. So he comes up with a scheme to get the money. But at what price?
As with “Job in Williasmburg,” this is part of my little experiment to test the idea of single-story e-book downloads. I’ll be releasing a single-story e-book download each month, all priced at $1.99. I’ll eventually release most of them in a single trade paperback collection. But with publishing models being stood on their head in the digital age, I don’t have to wait to get these stories into your hands (or hard drives in this case). Enjoy.
And if you’ve never read an e-book before, click here for a quick “how to.”
Who says storytelling can’t survive in the digital age? Presenting, for your reading pleasure, a brand new, never before released short story titled “Job in Williamsburg” now available for a measely $1.99.
It’s the tale of Ramón, a poor painter who wants nothing more than to be a great artist. He talks to paintings. Sometimes they talk back to him. A pariah on the local art scene, who thinks he’s just painted a masterpiece. But things do not go as planned. Go ahead: skip a cup a coffee, plunk down some change, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a short story. It’s available in PDF, ePub, LRF (Sony eReader), Palm, or Amazon Kindle format; think of it as a damn good punk single.
While I’m still hard at work on the next book, “No Tears for Old Scratch,” I decided to try a little experiment. I’ll be releasing a single-story e-book download each month, all priced at $1.99. I’ll eventually release most of them in a single trade paperback collection. But with publishing models being stood on their head in the digital age, I don’t have to wait to get these stories into your hands (or hard drives in this case). It’s all part of my firm belief that as e-books, portable reading devices, and universal e-book file formats will be good for authors. Shorter content will become more popular again. Short stories will come back in the same way that singles came back for music, and the old pariah of the publishing world might just regain its luster.