Monsters in Appalachia: Stories by Sheryl Monks

Short stories defined by their location offer a complex Appalachia filled with both light and dark.

monsters-in-appalachia

Monsters in Appalachia presents the short stories of Sheryl Monks in a collection that ranges over a region but offers a cohesive vision. United by their sense of place, these stories are compassionate and impassioned, often disturbing and filled with energy.

The dangers of coal mining strike the young and the experienced alike. A 14-year-old girl is encouraged by her mother and aunt to pursue men, but resists. A man searches for a dog he believes holds the key to better luck. An exchange at a small-town grocery drives home class inequalities and double standards. Factory workers consider devising on-the-job accidents to collect disability. And in the final, titular story, an old man hunts and captures monsters while his wife prays for punishment for the couple’s sins.

The monsters are in fact many and various, figurative and surreally literal. Monks’s characters are plagued by poverty, abuse, limited education and a shortage of resources and options–upholding some of the stereotypes of Appalachia–but in their choices, they prove more than their typecasts. Dialect and place-specific details establish settings like the mountains of West Virginia, where a panicked mother “can’t spot a single star for the heavy swag of tree branches that flank the road as it winds itself around the mountain.” A stern, moody atmosphere is one of Monks’s strengths, although there are points of light in this dark collection. Monsters in Appalachia is often painful but always authentic, both muscular and sensitive.


This review originally ran in the November 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 serpents.

The Mighty Currawongs by Brian Doyle

With Brian Doyle’s reliable good humor, this collection reveres human efforts and love in situations both moving and laughable.

mighty currawongs

The Mighty Currawongs and Other Stories by Brian Doyle (Martin Marten) roams broadly in subject matter, but always offers joyful, whimsical wordplay and an abiding love for life’s absurd and profound moments. These short stories–almost all under 10 pages–deal specifically with human experiences and relationships, rather than embracing the wider natural world of Doyle’s novels, but the same voice and fanciful tone appear clearly.

A Boston basketball league plays through hilarity and scuffles, and finds a player who deepens the game. A likable archbishop loses his faith; a grandfather teaches his grandson to play chess; a tailor offers a young newspaperman sartorial and other advice. Through these everyday incidents, Doyle’s approach to the world is poignant (as in a veteran’s memories of the Vietnam War) but steadfastly hopeful. Indeed, the only criticism of his work might be for his unrelenting optimism, expressed by consistently likable, essentially good characters. But with his mastery of language and eye for detail, Doyle’s characters always feel authentic, and their ups and downs are realistically proportioned. His gift for finding the sublime in even the small and dirty details is alive and gleaming in this short story collection.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the September 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 halves of the door.

Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke (audio)

Disclosure: James Lee Burke has said some nice things about me. I appreciate that, deeply. But he couldn’t buy my good review that way. Not all of his books are equally excellent. This one is excellent.


jesus-out-to-seaOn our drive south, Husband and I listened to this collection of James Lee Burke short stories on audio. I found it deeply powerful. The stories range widely: geographically, they are set in Gulf Coast south Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and Montana. In time, they are set in the 1940s and 50s through 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Protagonists are oil rig workers, children, jazz musicians and retired professors of literature and creative writing. What they all have in common, though–characters and stories both–is their focus on society’s outcasts and castaways, the downtrodden and unlucky, the poor; and on the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (and women). In other words: classic James Lee Burke.

The opening story, “Winter Light,” stars a retired academic who opposes hunters and doesn’t let them on his land. His refusal to back down in this and other just causes* precipitates ugly events. “The Village” is a short, stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative by a military man involved in a massacre in Vietnam. Its style, if not its tone, is different enough from the Burke I know to startle me; I am impressed. “The Night Johnny Ace Died” tracks musicians through love triangles and organized crime in 1950s Louisiana. “Water People” sees base conflicts and suppressed traumas among Gulf Coast oil drill workers in the same era. “Texas City, 1947” references a real-life major catastrophe of that year (look it up), but that big event is only one piece of a puzzle starring an abused child and a number of sad and sordid crimes, as well as a sympathetic nun who (sadly) Husband didn’t find terribly realistic. My impression from hearing these stories read aloud is that this was one of the longer ones. If that’s incorrect, at least it was one of the more impactful for me, and contained lots of familiar geographic markers.

“Mist” featured a young woman attending AA meetings and trying to be sober. Her past traumas include the death of her husband in Iraq and events during Hurricane Katrina that go unnamed for most of the story. I suppose this is a personal reaction, but I found the particular uglinesses of this story harder than most of the others. But beautifully done, and not exploitative.

“A Season of Regret” reprises the opening story: a different retired academic on his own chunk of land makes a stand for a different set of just issues. I enjoyed the new version of a familiar concept. These are two different characters and two different sets of challenges, but the emotional tone is the same. Next come a trio of stories told by the same narrator, a child named Charlie growing up in 1950s Houston. These have their higher and lower moments in terms of holding interest, but I found the characters–Charlie, his best friend Nick, Charlie’s father, and the family of neighborhood bullies–compelling. And there’s nothing like hearing the specific history of my hometown extracted and mulled upon in its details: it feels like coming home.

The final, titular story is the clear tour de force of this collection, in my opinion. “Jesus Out to Sea” is narrated by a man from New Orleans, who grew up on Magazine Street with two best friends who were brothers. The three go to Vietnam; one is broken by the experience and ends up a gangster; the narrator and the other brother become modestly accomplished jazz musicians who decline into hard drug use before the gangster helps them get clean. The story culminates with a storm that need not be named. While Burke’s writing throughout this collection is as lyrical, startling and shockingly beautiful as ever, this story showcases those talents the best, in its repeated use of bougainvilleas as the blood of Christ, or the blood of any of us, among other things. This story is music and poetry and oh, the tragedy. I admit to being especially affected by Katrina stories. But this one evokes all the unnecessary pain and wrongness of it, as well as the simple natural forces that those of us from hurricane country are familiar with, and the ways in which this storm was different. As we listened to “Jesus Out to Sea,” Husband was driving south across Utah, and we missed a turn by 20 miles or so because our navigator (ahem) was so distracted. It’s powerful stuff, this.

Sharing a book with Husband is a rare treat for me, so I want to give voice to some of his reactions. Overall, he gave this collection a 7, and complained of abrupt endings that didn’t wrap everything up neatly: he wanted to understand clearly what happened to everybody, which is a privilege not always afforded. He wanted a little more justice, to see revenge gained. But we know we don’t always get that from Burke.

He loved the nostalgia of hearing about places and cultural and historical markers we know intimately, though, and I have long found this to be one of the easiest ways to win a reader’s heart: shared landmarks, especially geographic ones (at least for those of us tied to place), and especially little-known ones, so we feel like we’re in on a secret. The classic example in this case was the Alabama Ice House, where young Charlie goes to fetch his dad home for dinner in the 1950s, and where they sometimes get hot dogs: Husband said, “they still serve hot dogs there!” excitedly, and I shared his enthusiasm for a place we know and love. For Husband (not for me), one young protagonist’s experiences in Catholic school also rang a bell.

Husband struggled to find certain details of some stories realistic. But my reaction was very different. I guess I’m more inclined to trust Burke to know better than I do how some things work; or to trust that some unrevealed detail could explain the unlikely event. In the case of a famous gangster showing an interest in learning yo-yo tricks from a couple of kids–maybe I was just too charmed by the whimsical and oh-so-human oddity to complain. Husband did praise the descriptions and scenes overall, said he could visualize what was described; and I think what he’s referring to is the fullness of sensory detail, the evocation of fully-formed worlds.

I also want to mention the repeated images and phrases that showed up in this collection. Several characters, when startled or distracted, looked as if flashbulbs had just gone off in their faces. Several suffer from noises in their heads that recall the thropping of helicopter blades or the banging of people trapped in their attics in rising water. Husband noticed these, too, and again we had different reactions. I have the impression that some of these come from a Burke habit, a way of seeing and describing things. Others–the thropping of the helicopter in a troubled character’s head–I think might serve as a wise and artful linking device. These stories are held together in several ways: the attention they pay to underclasses and injustices, a way of looking at the world, and a sense of the Louisiana Gulf Coast as the center of a personal world. They are also held together by poetry, bloody bougainvilleas, the smell of fish spawning, and torment; and if that torment recurs as a series of thumping sounds, it only helps us follow Burke’s special genius.


Rating: 8 bougainvilleas.

*For the record, whatever your position on hunting, I think this character has a right to control his own property.

Mississippi Noir ed. by Tom Franklin

Collected noir stories firmly grounded in Mississippi atmosphere offer a concise view of the genre’s possibilities.

mississippi noir

Akashic Books’ noir series travels to Mississippi, with Tom Franklin editing this collection of short stories by both established and newly published authors. Mississippi Noir includes 16 tales, symmetrically organized in four sections of four: “Conquest & Revenge,” “Wayward Youth,” “Bloodlines” and “Skipping Town.” The thematic groupings are loose, and the contents work equally well in any order, picked up and put down as the reader chooses.

These chilling stories vary in length, from 20-some pages down to just a few, and though they cover a range of subjects and settings in time, they consistently embody the ideal of noir writing with a strong sense of place. Bullets, blood, abuse and longing appear frequently, with some sex scenes thrown in as well. Ace Atkins writes of desperate teens running out of options; Megan Abbott, in a scintillating contribution, views from both sides a romance gone tragically wrong; Chris Offutt’s understated story stars a waitress drifting from town to town; and Dominiqua Dickey’s first published story involves an interracial romance in 1936. Within all of the pieces, the authors pay special attention to local details: natural beauty, economic depression, college culture, the longing to escape a small town or the yearning for a wider world.

These stories are dark by definition, and marked by unhappiness: as one narrator sighs, “I wanted sleep to pass without actually having to sleep. I wanted the future.” But an appreciation for the surroundings is always evident; these pages drip with Mississippi humidity. Fans of classic noir will be pleased and rooted in this redolent setting.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 bullets.

Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked by Aaron Burch

A writer’s examination of the writing that shaped him–even reluctantly–yields layers of self-awareness.

stephen kings the body

Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series features writers contemplating the literature that has made deep impressions on their lives and work. Aaron Burch’s entry is Stephen King’s The Body, a brief but incisive consideration of King’s novella and Burch’s life in ways that surprise the author and intrigue the reader.

“The Body” is one of four novellas in King’s Different Seasons (which also includes “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). It is perhaps better known for the film adaptation, 1986’s Stand by Me. Burch’s lifelong fascination began with the movie; he writes here about coming later to King’s written work as he becomes a reader, a writer and a teacher. King’s protagonist, Gordie Lachance, is also a writer and very much resembles King himself. The layers of meta-awareness continue in Stephen King’s The Body: Burch refers to his writing of the book and to its earlier drafts.

“The Body” is a Bildungsroman circling themes of friendship, nostalgia and loss as four childhood friends trek cross-country to view the dead body of a boy their age. Burch explores these themes with tenderness and sentiment, even as he resists the latter. Although “The Body” and Stand by Me provide the framework for Burch’s contemplation, his work is at least as much self-reflective memoir or personal essay as it is literary criticism. As he writes, his marriage looks to be breaking apart–a parallel Burch forces himself to confront. The two processes, writing and considering a marriage, prompt a direct gaze into difficult truths, but as King writes (as Gordie Lachance): “The most important things are the hardest to say.” This is a recurring sentiment in Burch’s slim book, where he earnestly attempts to address those hard things.

Burch exposes himself as a striking character who has a complicated relationship with art–the art he produces (up until now, only fiction) and the art he enjoys. He is an unlikely writer of literary criticism, with his resistance to considering authorial intent, and purposefully avoids behind-the-scenes perspectives on his favorite works. “It can be fun to take apart a magic trick and figure out how it actually works, but it also ruins the magic of the trick.” Having pushed himself, however, Burch is surprised to find his venture into literary criticism extraordinarily enlightening.

Burch elaborates on King’s themes of loss and friendship with those of transitions, of firsts: first date, first kiss, first job, first road trip. As Gordie (or King) writes, “There’s a high ritual to all fundamental events… the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens.” The beauty of Stephen King’s The Body is in Burch entering that magic corridor, and splitting the experience wide open–uncomfortably, even–for the reader to study with him.


This review originally ran in the August 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scenes.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Mighty Currawongs and other stories by Brian Doyle

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Brian Doyle on books! Obviously you need this in your Tuesday.

mighty currawongs
From the story called “Elson Habib, Playing Black, Ponders the End Game”:

…one only needs a hundred books, my boy; the trick is to choose carefully which books are your companions; many people simply accumulate books and do not read them, whereas a discriminating soul has fewer books in toto but swims in them regularly; and the best books bear rereading, for somehow they always contain surprises and lessons you did not notice in previous readings. It is possible that some very good books continue to write themselves after they are published, perhaps working with their companions on the shelf, which is why I rearrange them twice a year, so as to provide them with new stimuli. Who is to say that they do not communicate among themselves, in ways only they know?

There is a whole blog post hidden in here about book ownership: how many, how stored, how arranged, how loved, how many read vs. unread. Incidentally, I am preparing for another cross-country move, so packing & choosing books again. Today, I don’t want to muck up Doyle’s lovely words. That blog post will come (and you will be asked about your own habits!).

But for today, go back and reread those lines, above. Happy reading.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

jesus' sonThis is an intense, gritty collection of connected short stories that is almost a novel. The unnamed narrator (known only as Fuckhead) is clearly the same guy throughout, as we follow him through a nearly-chronological series of adventures in drug abuse, petty crime and violence, depravity and apathy. Also novelistically, there is something of an arc: the story ends with our narrator living sober with a part-time job, muddling along in a dingy, not-guilt-free version of redemption. It is not clearly told; the narrator is addled and deluded, and so is his story-telling style; it is performative of the character.

There is beauty throughout, as well. It is a fascinating, glittering series of tales in its emotional range and its tolerance for different viewpoints. Jesus’ Son has the power to entertain and amuse, to disturb and disquiet, and to uplift all at once. It is a strange, powerful creation.


Rating: 7 hits.
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