Ask ten people for the definition of a short story and you will receive ten very different answers. Some agree on certain basic characteristics- a beginning middle and end, a protagonist, a conflict- yet sound arguments can be made against these aspects as defining elements. Hemingway’s famous (and disputed) ‘Baby Shoes,’ for example, is generally considered a short story despite being only six words long and not featuring a single character. The nine stories in Kevin Catalano’s debut collection are a diverse bunch. They vary in length (from a single paragraph to ten pages), in perspective, and in approach. A few of the stories follow a traditional arc- rising action, climax, resolution- while others resist conformity.
The title story reads much like a piece of tribal lore passed on through oral tradition:
and the men came down the mountain, came out of the wilderness cast in furs and skins, the rank of beast on their gnarled bodies, a fearful mystery in their eyes.
The single-page story is fascinating, but heavily abstract. It feels like an origin story and sets a savage, grave tone for the rest of the book.
In ‘The Verb, God,’Luke, a recurring character, faces an unlikely obstacle- a conflict quite the opposite of what many men fear- a reproductive organ large enough to be physically intimidating, even dangerous to prospective partners. His “hanging enormity” becomes a source of ridicule by his peers and a repellent to women, leading Luke to avoid dating or any situation that might lead to sex. He fears his own desires, creating a lifestyle of self-loathing. When he meets a woman strong enough to transverse this barrier, the results are powerful and destructive:
Staring each other down, sizing the other up, they talked all manner of nasty while undressing. The graphic rhetoric riled the leviathans in them, and like unspeakable things spoken, the not-dared was done: they smacked punched choked and gagged. She was on her face, using her hands to pull herself apart; he was standing behind, double-fisting his hulk–so it couldn’t be undone ever.
Catalano’s prose is fierce and sharp, full of life yet carved to the bone. Never do the stories feel wordy or overwrought. Nothing is drilled into the reader’s skull by repetition. Occasionally the plots wander in strange directions. In ‘The Multitude,’ a conflict is developed between a husband and wife over how their differing reactions to learning that their unborn child will have Down’s Syndrome. Rather than explore the implications of their differences, Catalano plunges the husband into a dramatic situation involving an old man in the snow and a car accident. No real connection is made between the two events (the accident and the troubling ultrasound), and the story ends with the husband running away from his problems, literally. It is as though the point of the story is to not address the conflict, which can make for a frustrating reading experience.
But for every moment of frustration there is a moment of eerie pleasure, be it in the form of an unsuspected revelation, artful imagery, or imaginative language: “His heart it thumped fiercer that when he had promised me it was good love, and the water was the same cool as the butterfly knife that still lay hidden in my drawer. My heart suddenly sprouted its tail which, seething with poison, sought its victim.” Readers, in fact, may feel like victims by the time they turn the final page: willing victims of Catalano’s visceral ambition.
Thomas Michael Duncan lives in Syracuse, NY. His reviews have appeared in Necessary Fiction Reviews, Prick of the Spindle, and Blood Lotus Journal. His online home is tmdwrites.tumblr.com.