Charles McLeod’s short stories are stuffed with ragbag casts who forever fall, fail, blunder and miss, and wear their open sores like badges of honor. Twelve deliciously seamy tales told in a variety of styles chronicle a succession of botched attempts at living, the damage stemming from either warped decisions or freak contingencies. McLeod knows that the best short stories are those that are mere interludes, snapshots of life rather than novelistic panoramas, and that pace is key: slow but steady unfolding or unraveling within the tightest of confines. Few stories here contain happy endings. All, rightly, resist neat denouements.
The first story, “Edge Boys,” shadows the sex-for-hire escorts who prowl “edge cities, the car-fervent boomburgs.” But after McLeod apprises us of their antics he jolts us by revealing that our narrator is not only an observer, but a married man and a paying punter, and thus is more on the brink than the edge boys he chases. Suddenly we change tack and what began as a study of rent boys at large blooms into a plea to one such boy to stay young and beautiful and a tirade about the decay of modern society. “Arbor” plays a similar game of concealment. Past and present merge as we learn how a woman came to be a permanent patient of a New Hampshire care ward. McLeod twines depictions of her sunny youth with details of the car crash that ended everything. As if frantic temporal shifts weren’t enough, McLeod follows the swerve of the car into a tree, halts car and narrative, and proceeds to regale us with a whole page of gubbins on the pitch pine, “that most stalwart and homely of conifers.”
When not taking the reader on detours McLeod is showcasing his rogue’s gallery of characters. All of McLeod’s stories are character-driven. Some leads slough off one identity and assume another: in the eponymous tale, McLeod traces the jagged trajectory of a man who goes from school dropout to White Power thug to anti-capitalist vandal. Others, like the mother in “Cowbird” who runs a brothel and sells off her kids, are locked into the same mechanical routine. We get characters down to their last (one man proclaims he is “a glass bulb blacking from tungsten, a switch waiting to be forever turned off”) mingling with those waiting to flip (in “Eden’s” the narrator anticipates becoming “a loud, sick dog on a long, broken leash, through with commands from its masters”). The better stories thrive on their warts-and-all descriptions of spent lives.
The few stories that don’t hit the mark are unsuccessful because in trying to pinpoint character tics and foibles McLeod ends up impaling his creations and consequently gives them nowhere to move: “Individualized Altimetry of Stripes”’ introduces a couple who run a tattoo and piercing parlor – “C.R. inks, I pierce” – but after scrolling through their event-free days we realize the only point of interest is its title. “Microclimates” is too whimsical for a tale about a dead relationship, although its saving grace is the narrator’s series of flashbacks to better times.
But the collection is top-heavy with stories that work, some working wonders. Marriages disintegrate in “The State Bird of Minnesota” and the standout “How to Steal Electricity” but McLeod tempers the gloom by once again splicing maudlin mooning with, respectively, a bomb-maker lying low in the boondocks and brother Jed’s criminal exploits. Drugs and birds make surprisingly good bedfellows, with “Rumspringa” dealing with a heroin-addled ex-Amish kid instructed by sheriffs to shoot a robin – “You get one shot” – to free a friend from jail, and speed-freak Gibby in “Nycticorax Nycticorax” discovering too late that he isn’t hallucinating when an off-course heron smashes into his windshield. Once again, McLeod blends in other lives and checkered pasts and ably demonstrates how the flashback propels the tale forward.
Along with the loose ends, McLeod is happy to veer off the beaten track and bring in a range of digressive offshoots, tangents that take the form of sideswipe musings, parenthetical revelations or submerged backstories. In a lesser writer’s hands every deviation would feel like needless padding, grafted-on guff which invariably conveys little and impedes narrative momentum. McLeod, however, operates on a different agenda and turns good stories into great ones the more he shunts his screwed-up individuals along sidetracks and down memory lanes.
“The lights for the traffic wept during rainstorms,” we are told at one point. In McLeod’s world everything suffers. We accompany the lost and the jilted, the misfits and the victims, and revel in pitch-black humor and fiendishly inventive prose. Hard knocks have never been so entertaining.