Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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There are moments of beautiful language in this assortment of well-scrubbed short stories, and some compelling scenes, too, and personages, sketched in clean lines and given a final spit-and-polish. There is some existential this or that, and folks get “hip-deep” in it, howling as the world grinds against them. Early-onset puberty brings trouble, dogs get “dead by truck impact,” and college kids hallucinate all the way to the tattoo parlor. There’s a flight of semi-comic fancy about Saddam Hussein, and a character who dreams of Joyce Carol Oates, and, ultimately, there’s a factory-fresh feel to these pages, and not in the grimed up and lunch-bucket-toting kind of way, hobbling home from a day of honest labor. Rather, these stories smell like the workshop, the story-making kind, and have that unnatural sheen of something well-studied and well-rehearsed, endlessly edited to fit the classic patterns, like a close-up magic trick, something with cards, subtle and not too showy.
There are, though, as I said, these bits of language, shiny as a new piece of tackle cast out on a sunny day. “He tugged on the bill of his hat once, got into the Chevelle and drove off in a roar of glass-pak noise,” for instance, which cracks like a solid shot in billiards, all the angles infinitely figured in advance. The crunch of the vernacular here, too, has a pretty choreography to it: “Paul wondered how long she would be gone, how far she might walk, how pissed off she might be when she got back, wet-footed and wild at him. He swore into the collar of his coat, and took off log-hopping up the hill, hoping she would stay with the fieldstone property line, at least. If she bushwhacked at all, he’d never find her, dark as the wood was in the dying near-spring light.” And then there is the compactness, the laced-up, well-engineered section that says so much with so little: “Shogun, a German shepherd, had dysplasia-related bowel impaction, and sometimes Nicholas had to manually ease the process along, even though he soaked her kibble in prune juice daily and had consulted everyone—animal physicians from Cornell to his wife Sheryl, a dyed-black-hair page herbalist from Canton, Pennsylvania—all of whom advocated lethal injection. He had recently tossed Sheryl ass-first out the trailer door into a snowbank, followed by racks of odoriferous vials and her blue crystal ball.” Such bits are, to tweak the title, mostly satisfying, but there is something too studied about them, like a trapeze show where there’s no hint of risk, just some swinging, some catching, some loops and applause. The mudroom gets mentioned, of course, and in the midst of some delicately-crafted phrase, drawing on some shelf of books that maybe also mentioned mudrooms, their mystery, but this is not a book to keep there by your work gloves, your worn boots. This one leaves me with the sterile scene of one of those new sprays they sell to add an odor of the outdoors to your home décor, for a small price. Something odd about it, “mountain breeze” in a can, a chemical scent. There are moments when it might be nice, that smell, and reminiscent of something, or enticing. But it isn’t the mountains, and the mountains aren’t in it. That was my sad conclusion, too, after reading Mostly Redneck.
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