Warmed and Bound, an anthology of neo-noir fiction, offers 38 dark and beautiful stories from Matt Bell, Blake Butler, and others.
Warmed and Bound is an anthology based on the people who hang at the Velvet, meaning, people who have had book reviews or stories appear on Velvet’s site. The big guns included in the book are: Matt Bell, Blake Butler, Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, and Paul Tremblay, but there are also stories from first-timers who scribbled from a picnic table in the food industry as well as contributors who’ve published ten books. Warmed and Bound is thick with morbid surprises and vibrant prose. I read the thirty-eight-storied beast on an eighteen-hour flight from Vienna to Los Angeles, during which I thought my head would explode and my lungs disintegrate into chalk, the way most folks feel on those kinds of flights.
In Steve Erickson’s dramatic foreword, he described “W&B” as a place where “fixation and fetish swap meanings and moments” and I thought he must’ve been referring to Matt Bell’s creepy and great “Mantodea” where temporary lusts grew into voracious hunger for self-destruction: glass-swallowing fun. Or, he could’ve been referring to Amanda Gowin’s “Yellow urine on a stick turning pink, pails of blue paint obliterating the room” in her intriguing, “World of Clocks.” I yearned to slip and slide in those places of fetish and fixation. You will too.
In the foreword, Erickson asked, “What is your soundtrack?” My Austrian Air flight was shoulder-to-shoulder crammed. A chubby baby cried across the aisle, held by a twenty-something girl with wet armpits. She fell asleep holding him, unaware that his head jerked and slid towards the armrest. The panic rose in my fingertips as the wobbling baby hit his head. Those cries were my “Warmed and Bound” soundtrack.
Like my flight, “W&B” was crammed with fleshy, contorted characters on the brink of disaster. Unfortunately, only two of the thirty-eight tales were written by women, and one by its editor, Pela Via, whose searing Parkinson’s love story, “Touch” was especially potent. She wrote about the squirmy parts of a loved ones’ illness: the rage and dignity and the “grief that settled in bones like cement.” There were many stars that dazzled me, like Via, but for this review, I had to pick the ones that shimmered the brightest.
Where the female authorship was lacking, the femme fatale quotient was high so I’ll begin there: Nik Korpon’s gorgeous, violent story “This Will All End Well” was a shocking setup gone terribly array and a seething love affair with chance. His French femme fatal was wicked, powerful, and vulnerable. Dangerous dames also haunted Craig Clevenger’s sexy, restrained “Act of Contrition.” It began with a disturbingly hot, petulant teenage cousin sipping a swiped beer in a bikini. “I’ve been good my whole life” was the tightrope Clevenger walked with clenched teeth throughout his bizarre ride through the desert night. Clevenger knows tension like a family pet and describes “silence like a sleeping dog between us.” He knows the silence of hookers in headlights. His words ached with that lonesome knowing.
There were bad girls, runaways and little girls with guns in Kyle Minor’s jaw-dropper “They Take You” where religious cult elders abducted kids from a birthday party and it was a downward-spiral lollipop from there. My favorite story was Richard Thomas’ brave “Say Yes to Pleasure” because it was horrendous perfection: believable and impossible guilt folded into an origami swan. He played with victim/perpetrator in a farm fresh way, steering his tractor of self-punishment from a terrible accident he caused into an internal avalanche of remorse and hot sex. His vital, crisp story contained the most delicious sentence in the anthology: “This one moment of beauty in our lives, always hidden under a cloud of despair.”
Paul Tremblay reminded me of Rebecca Brown’s (The Terrible Girls) severed arm beautifully, offering stolen limbs with ribbons and memory loss. His story hung vignettes one by one as if by a clothesline and his sentences stung with beauty like “fried air poured over my skin.” He wrote about desire and power in a casual place where expectation and resentment collided. His story hooked me here: “I’m supposed to think about having sex with him, but he makes me feel tired instead.” Nic Young’s “My German Daughter,” a story about first times and happy accidents was painfully concise, but too short. I wanted more, more, more.
But Stephen Graham Jones, goddamn, did he deliver. “The Road Lester Took” had wonderful, awful characters with their scabby flaws on parade, playing cards while dipping into the Pharmacy bowl for mystery powders. His characters were ego-driven, desperate and sad. His characters played that poker hand that’s never good enough in lives that fall short with men who are only good for daytime television and betting video footage of their wives’ boobs. “The Road Lester Took” isn’t about getting away with shit. It’s an emotionally inappropriate text message to the loser in all of us with dialogue that’s tense and full of secrets. He showed that mighty awkwardness between lovers who know, but don’t know each other. The ending was a tender and painful drive to the smooth road with his wife: a sweet and twisted ending that will always be a love letter.