[REVIEW] Night in the Sun: Stories by Kyle Coma-Thompson

nmightinthesun

Dock Street Press, 2016

REVIEWED BY CALEB TRUE

Reading Kyle Coma-Thompson feels somehow universal, as though he were writing in a tradition of philosophical inquiry and his writing just happened to take the form of short stories. The pursuit of big questions, a sharp sense of humor, and sly skepticism unify the stories in Night in the Sun, Coma-Thompson’s second collection. Diverse in form, structure, tone, and perspective, and employing an eclectic host of characters and situations, these stories provide functional answers to the meaning of life, answers sometimes neither pretty nor conclusive, but always elegant.

The first two stories in the collection inhabit their subjects through memory, anecdote, and comparison. “Idaho” observes Djuka, a Hungarian history professor. Coma-Thompson’s unnamed narrator synthesizes Djuka’s character through various evidence—Djuka’s own offhand admissions, his history, his battle for career and marriage—with the ultimate goal of understanding Djuka’s impulses following a street massacre he witnesses in Florence. Memory is used similarly in “New Delta Future,” a short piece about a return to old haunts, but in this case memories are reanalyzed in an attempt to understand a town forsaken by time. Both “Idaho” and “New Delta Future” paint their resolutions circumspectly. In “Idaho,” the narrator reconciles Djuka’s academic elitism—and all elitism, possibly—while Djuka and the narrator drink at a workingman’s bar in an unnamed Midwestern town. The narrator’s consolations act as an answer to Djuka’s trauma of witness. “New Delta Future” employs a more intimate anecdote, poetically drawn, to point optimistically at the title, suggesting there is indeed a future for the dying town.

In “Back Pay (& Other Vagaries)” the character under scrutiny is fortune itself. This story tracks the ironies of economic success and failure of city planning and the dashing caprices of society’s striving dregs. It ends with a vagabond’s binge after hours in a Kroger grocery store. A folk hero, he is found the next day covered in vomit and dozing happily in the ceiling, having “sle[pt] it off above the heads of shoppers, swimming like a dead king in the circuits of their haloes.”

In a handful of stories in this collection, narrative is constructed seemingly out of history itself. For instance, in “Dread Elders,” a triptych story, a handshake between a cop and a young man holds an entire misunderstanding and potential for positive communion. At the end of “Judges,” the second piece in the triptych, when the ‘judge’ and the newlyweds are no longer furniture in each other’s tangential lives, one can sense a heavy emptiness in the intersection of strangers. In these vignettes, and more singularly in “Story for Fire,” the narrative reaches its critical point only beyond the page, as though Coma-Thompson has suspended the final piece of the puzzle, preserving in these stories an ouroborical permanence.

The collection closes with two excellent form plays; “Spite & Malice” and “Andrej Lives.” The first is a sixteen-part mosaic associating the risk-reward strategies of the card game Spite & Malice with a wide array of cultural and historical curios. This masterful story marries Coma-Thompson’s essayistic, analytic penchants to formal structure.  A narrative forms from this mélange as once-seeming coincidences are inextricably interwoven. “Andrej Lives” is written in the form of a reply letter to a friend who has asked his friends to provide him with reasons why he should not commit suicide. It’s meandering and beautiful, and as funny as it is touching; the sincerity of it makes the humor in “Andrej Lives” all the more biting. Perhaps we could decide, given the title, that Andrej does not in fact kill himself, but the heart of the story lies in the ambiguity through which it is written, all the way to the final aporia, in the final paragraph, which also happens to be the last line of the collection itself: “Tell us[, Andrej,] about Vitamin D, how prolonged exposure to sunshine is as dangerous as it is vital to your health.”

The stories in this collection where the author is addressing the reader feel the most original, the most unique. There are, by contrast, a handful of stories written from different perspectives and without the strong presence of the author coloring our understanding one way or the other. These more conventional stories are, on their own, excellent, and if I were to discover them in journals rather than in this collection, they would shine from the pages. However, next to Coma-Thompson’s more personal, weirder stuff—where the intense authorial presence elevates the stakes—these ‘normal’ stories feel comparably ordinary.

Coma-Thompson is at his strongest when he is working in this omniscient, essayistic mode, just kind of talking, pondering, all the while slyly assembling a narrative before our very eyes. It is difficult to accurately describe this unadulterated, unmanipulated form of narrative without getting messianic. In a way this type of storytelling feels like pure narrative, motive free. There is so much formulaic elicitation in modern short fiction, so much effort towards and emphasis on locking in a reader’s emotion early on in the hopes of hedging against a reader’s flimsy attention span. This strategy becomes tiresome; the real thing—what feels like honest storytelling—can feel like a good friend telling you a story, and that makes for effortless reading. In many of these stories, Coma-Thompson achieves something like that.

The stories in Night in the Sun ponder outsize questions. The ruminations of the author—on history, his subjects, narrative trajectory, the purpose of narration in general—seem at least as important as the stories themselves. Some have compared Coma-Thompson to Danilo Kiš and Alexei Remizov. I would add Bolaño to that list, for the Chilean’s preoccupation with the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of art; and Kundera, for Coma-Thompson and Kundera are both explicit ponderers of the meaning of life. There is something very global in Coma-Thompson’s fiction, even when he’s addressing the pitiful tribulations of provincial America, one of Thompson’s preferred arenas for grappling with life’s penetrating absurdities. This philosophical grappling is crucial, and is part of the reason this collection stands out. Without this kind of grappling, modern fiction risks irrelevance, becomes twee. At the same time, Coma-Thompson understands that fiction must be an escape from certain realities, an opiate against life. Coma-Thompson has navigated a middle ground to that paradox of literature: Night in the Sun feels simultaneously like an escape from certain realities and an intensification of them.

[REVIEW] Pool Party Trap Loop by Ben Segal

pool

Queen’s Ferry Press

136 pages, $16.95

 

Review by Michael Vegas Mussman

 

 

What is up with palindromes? Seems like any palindrome longer than “racecar” is unwieldy both to sense and to sound. Plus, they’re fake. “Able was I, ere I saw Elba,” Napoleon never said. “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama” makes sense only for advertising copy. And who is this Panamanian man, anyway?

And yet. Certain palindromes like “radar” do shine a pretty light. I bet we invented them to feed our craving for symmetry. It’s like they’re taunting us – what if, instead of randomly combining 26 letters, we follow some logic to build our words? It’s a nifty trick.

I want you to read Pool Party Trap Loop, by Ben Segal. The stories that Segal writes reflect each other, sometimes in mirrored pairs. But where palindromes create an illusion of order by deforming words, Segal assembles elegant words to evoke a fucked up reality. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Dragon’s Breath by MariNaomi

dragon

2Cloud

386 Pages, $24.95

 

Review by Corey Pentoney

 

Before I dig into this review, I want you to imagine what loss looks like. If you saw it on the face of a friend, would you recognize it? Are their eyebrows angled in a certain way, the corners of their lips turned down just so? Now separate that feeling from the person, from a human face. What does it look like? A swirling mass of black and dark colors? An empty beach? Take a minute and close your eyes and try to imagine what each and every emotion looks like—fear, hatred, love, happiness—when it’s not attached to a human being. Imagine the space it would fill.

In Dragon’s Breath, MariNaomi, the author and illustrator of Kiss and Tell (print), and Estrus Comics (online), as well as numerous short comics spread across the fathoms of the internet, tells the story of loss. The story is broken into many small vignettes, ranging from two or three pages to twenty or thirty, and all of these tiny events—the loss of her home, the loss of her grandfather, the loss of friends—are laid out in such a way that by the time you chew your way through the entire book, it will be hard not to feel in some way intimate with its author. You were there with her at the party with the members of Duran Duran; you screamed at her boyfriend when they didn’t get along; you stared at the bites from the bedbugs on your ankles and shins. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Infinity’s Jukebox by Matthew Burnside

 

Infinity

Passenger Side Books

32 pages, $4

 

 Review by Corey Pentoney

 

Matthew Burnside’s newest collection of short stories is, in a word, a trip.  A trip into the tentatively constructed heart of a boy who’s trying to understand his father, a trip into the remnants of what love means to a man who lost his wife, a trip to the very heart of literature.  The beautiful thing is that you’re not alone on your journey.  You have the jukebox to guide you.  It wasn’t until I finished the last story, “Literary Short Story: A Mad Lib,” that I began to understand the purpose of the inward-spiraling epigraph and the nickel that is glued in the center.  “To replay human existence—fine.  But to replay it in the way a drunk replays a corny tune pushing coins over and over into the jukebox?” he writes.  Almost every story in this collection felt strangely familiar to me, but with an odd and often beautifully compelling twist.

For example, the first story, “Passengers,” quickly calls to mind the drug-fueled rambling adventures of Hunter S. Thompson, but just when you begin to say “I’ve heard this all before,” Burnside hits you over the head with an iron skillet to remind you that you haven’t, to take a closer look.  Sometimes he achieves this with sentences as blunt instruments, the proverbial punches at the end of the story to make you rethink what you just read. Sometimes, and I believe more successfully, he brought me around with a stunning turn of phrase or detail that left me spinning like a coin on the countertop. My favorite story in the collection, “On the Benefits of a Lego Heart…,” achieves this by offering a unique glance into a familiar landscape: the heart of the abandoned child. This phrase at the end: “the way anything good could only ever be bought with equal but opposite suffering,” forced me to pause and re-evaluate the entire story. “Revival” does much the same for a man who has lost his wife, and is looking to escape his pain with a woman with “tarantula eyelashes” and a “tomahawk gaze.” Continue reading

[REVIEW] Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee

 

Vanessa Blakeslee's Train Shots cover photo

 

Burrow Press

145 pages, $15.00

Review by Denton Loving

Vanessa Blakeslee writes across genres, and her first collection of short stories, Train Shots, reflects how widely she has been published (credits within Train Shots alone include The Southern Review, Madison Review and Harpur Palate among others). These stories illustrate Blakeslee’s ability to inhabit the minds and voices of wildly different narrators and characters, though their common denominator is in the search for a safe place to belong.

Opening the collection is “Clock In,” a first-person point-of-view story written in direct address that immediately pulls the reader in as a new server at a restaurant. “First we’ll clock you in on the computer and then you can shadow me,” the story starts, and then the narrator proceeds to give “you” the entire scoop on the restaurant’s other employees. Blakeslee’s talents are truly highlighted in this story, expertly revealing a set of quirky characters in a remarkably short three pages.

Blakeslee’s craft is more subtle in other stories, even though her ambition pokes through again and again in beautiful sentences and her unique insight. In “Ask Jesus,” a man faces a cheating wife. In “Barbecue Rabbit,” a woman is challenged by a destructive, abusive, out-of-control son. In “Hospice of the Au Pair,” a doctor entertains the notion of a “home abortion” against his mistress’s will. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Casualties, by Kirsten Clodfelter

 

Book-Cover

Rope Walk Press

34 pgs/$14

 

Review by Tricia C. Gonzales

 

A young military wife anxiously awaits her husband’s return, a motherless teenager seduces/is seduced by her best friend’s Army-enlisted brother, a Kuwaiti-born daughter of a Gulf war vet seeks out her father. These are some of the characters that populate five beautifully written stories in Casualties, the debut collection by Kirsten Clodfelter and first runner up of the 2013 RopeWalk Press Editor’s Chapbook Contest.

Each story in Casualties stands solidly on its own but the way they are grouped together makes the title that connects them that much stronger. “The first casualty when war comes is truth,” the opening pages inform the reader. The stories are told from the distinct voices of the women who are affected as a result of each one’s connection to a man in military service. Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Aversive Clause, by B.C. Edwards

~ by David S. Atkinson

9781937854249

Black Lawrence Press

$16/180 pgs

I always hate to display my ignorance, but I will be forthcoming here and admit that I was not familiar with the work of B. C. Edwards before grabbing a copy of his short story collection The Aversive Clause. However, despite my unfamiliarity and despite this being Edward’s first prose book (he is also the author of the poetry collection To Mend Small Children), I still had high expectations.

After all, The Aversive Clause was the winner of the 2011 Hudson Prize. In addition to a long list of journal publications, Edwards has been nominated for a Pushcart and is a Literary Death Match Champion. I’ve even heard that one of the stories in this collection (“Illfit”) is being adapted by the Royal Ballet of Flanders. To make a long story short, I was expecting great things when I opened the cover.

Having opened this review in such a manner, I should immediately turn to whether or not my high expectations were satisfied. By way of answering my own question, let’s take a look at a portion from “The City of God is Your Town, America…If You Make an Effort!” as an example:

God descended to Earth into a lackluster soybean field somewhere in Kansas. “No,” he said when we asked him if it was the end of the world. “Oh heavens no, no, no,” and he waved his god-hands furiously causing minute divine ripples through the heat that ruined all our hairstyles. “No, really, no.” And God smiled like he was trying to convince us and him at the same time. And his smile was strange, awkward like the handshakes when you don’t realize you’ve met someone before and reintroduce yourself. Continue reading

jimmy lagowski saves the world by Pat Pujolas (a Review by David S. Atkinson)

Independent Talent Group

198 pgs/$12

When I first picked up jimmy lagowski saves the world, the short story collection debut by Pat Pujolas, I was expecting to read a funny little book. Really, that’s all I’d thought from the summary on the back. The twin epigraphs hadn’t really changed my mind, the first being the quote “All men are created equal” from Thomas Jefferson and the second, attributed to the character Jimmy Lagowski himself, being “Thomas Jefferson was a dick.” After reading one or two stories, however, I decided that jimmy lagowski saves the world was a collection that evokes tender emotion through the bare humanity of the characters. This bit from “State Park Resort” is a perfect example:

A few hours later, he emerges from the arts and crafts barn, victorious. She’s going to love this dog, this gift from Henry. In his excitement, he runs down the dusty road, past the game-room, past the other campers and tents, all the way to the Martin Family’s camper. Joann is eating lunch at the picnic table, and Henry runs to her side, presenting the dog to her, with both hands, like a trophy.

*****

“It’s so adorable,” Joann says. “I’m going to call him Henry.”

A knife, straight to the heart; his cheeks fill with blood again.

Joann pats the statute on its head. “Good little Henry. He’s a good little boy.”

Inside, Henry thinks, don’t call it that. Please don’t call it that. Call it anything in the worlds but that. Inside, this is what Henry thinks.

 

In short, a twelve-year-old boy makes himself vulnerable in a valiant and creative attempt to win the young girl he loves, only to have her unwittingly demonstrate that she considers more of a friendly puppy than a suitor. Continue reading

May We Shed These Human Bodies, by Amber Sparks (A Review by Dawn West)

 

Curbside Splendor

150 pgs/ $12.00

Welcome to the cabaret. Amber Sparks’ May We Shed These Human Bodies is a menagerie of twisted fairy tales, ghost stories, and wild fables. Her stories are often fantastical but her prose is almost scientifically precise. No muss, no fuss. Sparks is our fairy tale cartographer, mapping a world of modern magic and human error.

We begin with Death and the People, a darkly comic fable. Death comes for one of them, and the people stand up to him and say no. “If he goes, they said, then we all go.” Death, who is one suave son of a bitch, looking “tall and elegant and kind of preppy in a crisp white button-down and chinos,” gives in.”You all have to come with me, then.” This story is both humorous and poignant. The people are irrational, insatiable; a chorus of gaping maws, like we really are.

I love how Sparks takes the most surreal characters and renders them tangible- making us empathize with Death, for example. The feral children, the cannibalistic seniors, the trees who become people, the wives who become animals, a big City hungering for mobility, a legion of ghosts- they are all hoarding desires, even the dictator drinking alone,”watching Shane and weeping into a glass of whiskey.” Continue reading

I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND Official Release

In case you missed it amongst the holiday/New Year’s/list obsession hoopla, we are excited to announce the official release of I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND from Myfanwy Collins. A mixture and collection of both short stories and flash fiction, I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND brings tender, stark, and lost souls all of which are “in search of that which eludes them: an acknowledgment of a shared past, the fulfillment of a secret desire, a tenuous connection made whole.” Start your 2013 reading off right, order your copy here.

An official book signing of I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND will take place on Saturday, March 9th at 1 pm, during AWP Boston. Stay tuned for further announcements, reviews, and events.