Three Ways of the Saw by Matt Mullins (A Review by David Atkinson)

Atticus Books

216 pgs/$7.99

In recent memory, it seems that much of the fiction that receives significant critical attention is the writing that is unusual.  Whether this means fiction that experiments with language, fiction that challenges what a story is or can be, or fiction that just doesn’t resemble what we remember reading before, we seem to spend a lot of time talking about writing simply because it is different.  I am not sure why this is the case, but I admit that even I have been guilty of this.

However, though it is amusing to talk about things that are strange, I think there is a danger in spending too much of our attention on the experimental and not paying enough attention to what is new in more traditional, well-written fiction.  I don’t mean to say that experimental fiction is not necessarily written well, just that we commit an error when we ignore good fiction simply because it does its work quietly in telling a solid story.  After all, aren’t we really in this for the story?

By way of example, consider this excerpt from the story Blood Sacrifice in Three Ways of the Saw by Matt Mullins:

It’s the burning that surprises him most, more so even than the brute shock of unexpected impact when the snowball, no, the ice-ball, drills magma into his ear.  His hand darts to the side of his head.  He staggers and turns to see the clot of them laughing and pointing from across the street.  He does not know who they are, probably public school kids, all three of them a few years older, calling him asshole, pussy, loser to the wind ringing past his torn eardrum.

Clearly, this excerpt illustrates some really solid traditional writing.  The description is visceral, tangible, and emotional.  There is a lot we are told in a short time, but there is also a lot we are not being told that we somehow also know.  In short, I find this to be compelling fiction.

However, do not assume that the stories in Three Ways of the Saw do not have any bizarre treats in store simply because I interpret them as more traditional than experimental.  The Dog in Me, by way of example, is surely on the strange side.  The narrator of the story gets a dog thinking it will help him hit on his hot next-door neighbor.  However, he shortly decides that the dog is conspiring with his mailman to prevent this, even possibly writing “Creep” on the narrator’s subscription copy of Juggs when it is placed in the narrator’s, or the neighbor’s, mailbox.  If that wasn’t odd enough, the narrator’s plan to deal with the situation is even stranger:

I put the Animal Channel on 24/7 and started filling a second water bowl with beer.  I heaped Otto’s plate with meat.  I made sure he was in earshot when I called to cancel his appointment to get neutered.  He put on a quick ten pounds and lost interest in the yard.  Pretty soon he was sauntering around the house like it was his paw print on the mortgage.  Meanwhile, I started spending most of my spare time outside, patrolling the perimeter, dealing with those overgrown hedges I wanted to dig out.  Let him cool his heels inside, I figured.  Give him a taste of the gilded cage.  See what it reveals.

That’s right, to deal with the dog’s treachery he basically switches places with the dog.

Still, though The Dog in Me presents some really interesting and bizarre material, I still would not call it experimental.  To me, it is a perfect example of a bizarre straightforward narrative.  It presents us something new, but doesn’t have to do fancy acrobatic tricks in order to be able to do it.

In fact, though I would consider most of the stories in this collection to utilize a somewhat traditional narrative structure, there is an impressive amount of variety.  We have already discussed Catholic school boys being brutalized by public school kids and owners switching places with their dogs because they are fighting over a hot neighbor.  Even beyond that kind of range, these stories utilize a variety of different kinds of structures, voices, and perspectives.  Male characters, female characters, old characters, young characters, omniscient disembodied views that watch different combinations of the previously mentioned characters, the stories in this collection demonstrate Mullins’s mastery of a plethora of disparate viewpoints.  A few of these stories are even built around the forbidden second person ‘you,’ and contrary to all expectations manage to pull off the effect without disrupting the story.

I find this variety to be one of the most pleasing aspects of Three Ways of the Saw.  In this collection Mullins tells us, whether it is his intention or not, that experimental fiction is not the only place to find new things in fiction.  No matter how many times we may have been over traditional grounds, there are still surprises to be had when you have the kind of range at your fingertips that Mullins appears to.  After all, there are so many possible facets to even a single truth that we will never run out of new facets to explore.  In reality, we are only limited by our ability to look at something in different ways.



David S. Atkinson received his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska.  His stories have appeared in (and/or will be appearing shortly in) “Grey Sparrow,” “Split Quarterly,” “Cannoli Pie,” “C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,” “Brave Blue Mice,” “Atticus Review,” “Children Churches and Daddies,” “The Zodiac Review,” and “Fine Lines.”  His book reviews have appeared in “Gently Read Literature,” “The Rumpus,” and “All Things Pankish.”  The web site dedicated to his writing can be found at  He currently serves as a reader for “Grey Sparrow” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.