Sunday, December 27, 2015

Good Neighbors, by Gary Earl Ross

"Good Neighbors," by Gary Earl Ross, in Buffalo Noir, edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, Akashic Press, 2015.

By the time the Washingtons moved into the house two doors away late last summer, Loukas and Athena Demopoulos had lived next to Helen Schildkraut for nearly five years.

Dang, that is a good opening sentence.  Clear, a bit complex, and instantly predicting the conflict that is to come.

Lou and Athena have retired after running their Greek restaurant for decades.  Lou's hobby is antiques.  He doesn't collect them, he just wants to buy low and sell high.  But then he discovers that his elderly neighbor Helen has a house full of them.  And Helen has no relatives, no favorite charities, no one to leave her precious belongings to. So Lou and Athena set out to become really good neighbors and wait for Helen to pass away.

But then the Washingtons -- remember them?  They appear in that crucial first sentence and then disappear for most of the story -- move in on the other side, and they are good neighbors too.

This is one of those rare stories I reread as soon as I finished it, because there was so much in it I wanted to see what I had missed.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Bubble Man of Allentown, by Dimitri Anastasopoulos

"The Bubble Man of Allentown," by Dimitri Anastasopoulos, in Buffalo Noir, edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, Akashic Press, 2015.

I'm not a big fan of experimental or even mainstream literary fiction (sometimes defined as "stories with the last page missing.")  So this story had to be extra good to top my weekly list.

I'm going to tell you about some of the characters and you are going to think it's a funny story.  It isn't.  The key word is actually creepy.  Not horror, but it will get under your skin.

Okay, characters.  Tippett is a sixty-year-old cop, on suspension because of his fascination with contaminating crime scenes with chalk outlines.  He considers it a form of artistic expression.  And then there's the Bubble Man, who sits in his fourth floor apartment all day blowing large bubbles down into the street below.  And a middle-aged woman named Lora Gastineau who left her house in a slip and sneakers and never returned.

Tippett is called back to work when a fresh corpse is found and he rushes to prove himself and then -- well, weird things happen.

The artist had tinkered with the body's appearance after the person had died, Tippett guessed -- a new-age sketch artist, judging by the aura of the total work on the ground.  it betrayed the artist's faith in symmetry and harmony, in the reconstruction of the whole figure.  Techniques popularized in the early 1980s, Tippett thought...

A wild ride.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Stretching Fifteen, by Angel Luis Colón

"Stretching Fifteen," by Angel Luis Colón, in Protectors 2: Heroes, edited by Thomas Pluck,  Goombah Gumbo Press, 2015.

Excuse me while I get professorial for a minute. Time to distinguish apples from oranges.

Every twist ending is a surprise.  Not every surprise ending is a twist.  A twist ending is one that makes you rethink everything that happened before.  The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, for example.

This story is a good example of a surprise ending that is not a twist, not that there is anything wrong with that.  Colón takes his tale in clever and unexpected directions.. 

Second point:  You can describe anyone you want as "my hero," meaning that you admire and wish to emulate the person.  But if you call someone "a hero" you should be describing someone who risked a lot (typically life but I would settle for freedom or fortune) for a worthy cause. Merely saving one's own life doesn't qualify - even if you save other lives at the same time.

Take, for instance, Chesley Sullenberger who successfully landed a jet on the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone on board.  Was that heroism?  Nope.  Incredible cool-headedness and fantastic skill, but he was not heroic, because he did not volunteer for the job.  He just happened to be the guy in the cockpit, and we are all glad he was.

But - and it's a big but - after the jet landed, Sullenberger stayed in the plane, counting heads, to make sure everyone was safely out before leaving himself.  And that makes him a hero. 

Which brings us, I am sure you are delighted to know, to this week's story.  Chris does something quick and decisive which saves his own life and perhaps that of many others.  He is praised as a hero as only modern America can.

At first he seems to react well.  He knows it's only fifteen minutes of fame and resists the temptation to turn into a media slut.  But when the attention fades away he can't get back into his normal life (could there be PTSD involved?) and starts looking for a way to get the glory back.

I predicted three or four ways the story could turn out and Colón completely fooled me.  Like I said, surprise ending.  And a thought-provoking and satisfying story.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Something I Said, by Bracken MacLeod.

"Something I Said," by Bracken MacLeod, in Protectors 2: Heroes, edited by Thomas Pluck,  Goombah Gumbo Press, 2015.

I can't say much about this story without giving away the store.  So let me point out that the book is a fundraiser for PROTECT, "a non-partisan anti-crime pro-child lobby."  There are worse causes. 

The narrator of the story, Abel, is a bartender and he's back in the tavern on a night off.  He deliberately picks a fight with a regular customer, a guy named Scott.  Scott is what they call a "pick-up artist," who brags on the web about his irresistable techniques for seducing women.

Why does Abel want to get into a fight with this steroid-laden jerk?  What's his game plan? 

That's where I have to stop talking. Except to say that, while the story is serious, there's a line about martial arts that made me laugh out loud.  And the last paragraph is stunning.