LAMENTATION, by Joe Clifford
Jay Porter isn’t a happy man. Bitter and adrift – and in denial about both – he survives hand-to-mouth in the deep-freeze winter of a New Hampshire town; he lives apart from his son and his one true love, Jenny; he’s haunted by the deaths of his parents; and he’s irritated by his brother’s junkie life. To add insult to the litany of injuries, Jenny is moving out of town with their son and her ex-biker boyfriend. In other words, Jay’s life is as cold and forlorn as the landscape around him. But when Chris, the addict (who is rumored to be complicit in their parents’ death) is detained after his business partner goes missing, Jay’s existence is catapulted through one throat-clutching brush with mayhem after another.
The first pages of Lamentation, the latest from California-based writer Joe Clifford (Junkie Love) are unsettling and deceptively tense. Clifford expertly paints a bleak picture of life in New England; no cozy homes tucked into the snowy woods. Clifford’s woods are not lovely, but they are dark and deep. As is the banality that surrounds Jay, the quintessential loser at war with the world – and mostly himself. He muses often about his inability to live up to the model exhibited by his deceased father as a husband and provider:
“No matter how hard I tried to go all in, something held me back, like a governor on a motorbike restricting full throttle. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t a lack of love. I’d never loved anything so much in my whole life. But despite that love, I was unable to produce, which had made me feel like a failure.”
To make matters worse – and Jay’s misery complete – his best friend, Charlie, reminds him often, as best friends often do, of the potential he had, the opportunity to go somewhere (“California or wherever”) and do something else, but “ … you never even took the shot.”
Even after Chris is released from jail and then disappears, propelling Jay into action, the fear and self-doubt nag at him. Jay’s search for his brother plunges him into a pit of deceit, lies and secrets that eventually threaten everything precious to him.
Clifford is a patient writer, slowly ratcheting up the suspense while taking the time to give Jay and his supporting cast their full dimensions. His depiction of the dreariness and desolation of Jay’s life is relentless, but thoughtful, even sympathetic. And in one page – just a few precise words, in fact – Lamentation leaps from the mundane to electrifying. Clifford is masterful at straightforward plots, unvarnished prose and dialogue that fairly crackles in the reader’s ear. As the follow-up to Junkie Love, Lamentation may become Clifford’s signature piece.
A SHELTER OF OTHERS, by Charles Dodd White
Charles Dodd White will never be accused of rushing through a story. And for that we are grateful. With prose that evokes Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews and often reaches the level of poetry, White’s novel, A Shelter of Others, is a stark, soulful look at the frailty of everyday existence, the damage done by hurtful relationships and the consequences of that hurt.
In the country-tough backwoods of southwest Virginia, Mason Laws has recently been released from prison following a sentence for drug dealing. His wife Lavada lives in the “family holler,” tending to Mason’s senile father Sam – estranged from his son for years – as best she can on her wages as a waitress and trapped by misguided family and matrimonial loyalty. Mason and Lavada are each tormented by guilt, desire and a vague apprehension of life itself. Their slowly rising desperation and desolation drives this story toward the inexorable tragedy they both seem to know is waiting for them.
Through Mason’s eyes: “Here he was, an old man, an apostate. The compression of life in these few hours. At last, he was aware of what the past had been, what disjointed time really meant. Much more than some petty regret or desire to tend his will toward a differently traveled path. No relief in the opium of nostalgia. There was no solution in that deep sleep called remembering, only deceit, self-deceit, the most vicious kind.”
White’s writing is arresting, with passages that alternately sear the soul and spark joy; every word is to be savored, as when Lavada and Mason meet for the first time since the latter’s release from prison:
“She put her face to his chest, her hands to his hips. His arms pinned her to him close. There was nothing left that could separate them. She would rage at any particle of distance.”
And while it is easy to compare White to other writers whose craft is honed in the rural American hinterlands, it is also something of an insult. White’s voice is immense, razor sharp and all his own. He treats his characters – flawed as they are – with dignity and tenderness. He dares to glimpse inside the human soul and give voice to those doubts and insecurities that dog our every step, the undefined emotions buried in us that never scream for attention, but gnaw at our conscience and erode our spirit. In doing so, he exposes the humanity in us all.
DIRTBAGS, by Eryk Pruitt
When you title your novel, Dirtbags, you damn well better deliver.
Eryk Pruitt does — in spades. The story of Calvin Cantrell, aspiring serial killer, and the collection of — what else — dirtbags around him is absurd, pathetic and compelling as hell.
Lake Castor, a deteriorating small town in southern Virginia, is short on hope, opportunities and jobs, but it’s loaded with down-and-out bottom feeders, lost souls and losers. Calvin Cantrell is in the latter category. Unemployed and unmotivated, he spends his time reading comic books (“graphic novels,” he calls them) and, apparently, researching the hell out of every serial killer known in recorded history. His closest (using that term loosely) friend is another loser, Phillip, with whom he formed a strange bond years earlier in high school, when Phillip made a lame attempt at Columbine Redux.
Together, they hire themselves out to Tom London, a local restauranteur, (who happens to employ Calvin’s wife, Rhonda, as the manager) to kill London’s junkie wife, who has been exiled to Texas away from her son for her sins. But when the pair of would-be killers arrive in Texas, the plan goes sideways, and Calvin, in a moment of some kind of hick epiphany, realizes his opportunity to become the next great serial killer. He wends his way back to rural Southern Virginia, wreaking mayhem all the way.
Pruitt’s cast of wretches aren’t inherently evil, at least not in the classical sense. Cantrell is truly lost, one of the losers we all knew growing up, maybe even picked on or discounted as a freak. And watching Calvin effortlessly morph from a comic-book-reading couch potato into a serial killer should make any reader rethink how he treats his fellow man.
But what truly makes these characters the utter dirtbags they are is their sense of oblivion. Calvin is a clumsy, obvious, deluded serial killer. If Ted Bundy was in the major leagues of serial killers, Calvin barely made the Class A team. Rhonda is a confused but savvy former stripper who comes across as beaten down by the grind of a life of poverty and slim chances, but proves to be just as cunning and cold-blooded as her husband. The supporting cast members have their own fundamental flaws and base motivations, some pathetic, some simply self-centered. London is, well, a dirtbag of the highest order. Greedy, abusive, philandering and often drunk, London still manages to condescend and judge those around him, while considering himself the noble soul:
“Since opening the joint, London had made no decision without thinking of his boy. Raising the prices, making the portions smaller, firing the original manager and replacing him with Rhonda who would work for much much less. He held his boy tight and thought of all those other children growing up with dipshit fathers who couldn’t provide.”
Pruitt crafts a tight story with violent, odd characters reminiscent of Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana. At 200 pages, the novel may seem short. But using exposition to its maximum advantage, along with dialogue that’s dead-on country vernacular, Dirtbags absorbs you from the first page. Pruitt deftly unveils his characters a little at a time by giving each a distinct section of the story. Thus, the tale is told from a variety of perspectives, each of which rounds out the cast.
Dirtbags isn’t a polite tale, as one might discern from the title. It’s a pistol butt upside the head. And you don’t know whether to be repulsed, to laugh out loud , or to fear for your life. Or all three.