Hard Times Blues by Elwin Cotman

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The first rule of Write Club is: you do not bore the reader. The second rule of Write Club is: you do not bore the reader. Whatever the third, fourth, and fifth rules are, Elwin Cotman’s rough-hewn Hard Times Blues almost certainly breaks them, with uneven results. But inconsistent though his writing may be, Cotman never commits the cardinal sin of dullness.

Hard Times Blues is nominally a short-story collection, though you wouldn’t recognize the form in some of the book’s pieces. There are five stories in total: four take up the first half, and one elephantine eighty-eight-pager accounts for the second. Of the first four, only two are what would traditionally be called short stories.

There are starbursts of talent in this first half, and a knack for biting and imaginative language. In “The Elvis Room,” for example, we watch Ren, a white man who has chosen to live as a “hobo,” cart his girlfriend around, admiring her spirit with a mix of genuine regard and lazy stereotypes about her “true Latina” heritage. Every moment is a mental balancing act for him—he “feel[s] morally obligated to dislike Elvis” for his appropriation and exploitation of black musicians’ work, but to do so, he has to completely ignore the perspective of Junie, an actual black musician who worked with Elvis. This intriguing tension ends disappointingly, with supernatural events that, though beautifully described, do little to illuminate Ren’s psyche or growth. I love the appearance of an otherworldly “sorcerer commanding twin fireballs” and “bleached-white deer skulls, magnificently antlered,” but I don’t feel their confounding effects on Ren and am thus disinclined to care much about them.

Cotman hits his stride, though, with “Graveyard Shift,” the final and longest story in the collection. Instead of trying to hang poetic imagery in a speculative-fiction frame, he vaults headlong into bizarro sci-fi territory—and totally pulls it off.

“Graveyard Shift” is set in a slightly altered America in which a Walmart-esque big-box store called Mason’s has taken over whole towns (quite literally: a school becomes the store’s immense barbecue aisle, a museum the department for exercise equipment). Employees are expected to work long hours of herculean labor for pennies, and when they die on the job, they’re reanimated with black magic and put right back to work until their zombie corpses fall apart. These undead sales associates are called—wait for it—“careerists.”

It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it’s a poignant one, especially during an era of high unemployment and outrageous economic inequality: There is no limit to megacorporations’ dehumanization of minimum-wage workers. You are, to these companies, not a person but a soulless body, and they will work you to death (and beyond).

Our narrator and hero is Enrique, a low-level Mason’s employee who makes a name for himself by killing a careerist when it goes rogue and starts attacking people. “We were trained to protect the store like we would our own family,” he explains. “‘Security is everyone’s responsibility,’ our Instructional Vids said.” Why wouldn’t you expect employees to risk their lives for $8.50 an hour? At first, Enrique is terrified, assuming both the careerist and the hatchet he used to kill it will be docked from his pay, but instead his managers are pleased. (Naturally, though, they won’t replace his gore-stained uniform. He has to pay for that himself—but at least he gets “five dollars in store credit!”)

Enrique’s characterization isn’t particularly nuanced or unique, but it works well enough for the genre. He’s disillusioned, desperate for but terrified of human connection, nursing his emotional numbness with booze and casual sex. It’s not really necessary for him to break our hearts, because Cotman’s depiction of twenty-first-century wage slavery is already inside our ribcages, swinging a machete. When Enrique balks at the increasingly grotesque and immoral tasks he’s made to perform, a superior snaps, “I swear you kids are never satisfied.” How many times has that line been uttered almost word for word by bosses (or spouses or parents or politicians or pundits) across the country? How many zombies do we have to slay before people stop telling us we should be thankful for the opportunity?

Unfortunately, what starts as a devastating satire ends as a clichéd bloodbath, with page after page of over-the-top violence anyone would be hard-pressed to give a damn about. (Ironically, though it’s supposed to be thrilling, this is perhaps the one time during the book I did feel bored.)

In this way, “Graveyard Shift” is of a piece with the other stories in the collection. There is real talent and real heart in Cotman’s work, but it’s often obscured by an inexpertly sketched character arc or an arc of blood from a punctured jugular. If he has the work ethic to match his talent, Cotman could very well develop his promise into something great. But reading Hard Times Blues is sort of like kissing someone with a bag over your head, like in that Magritte painting The Lovers. You can sense the underlying passion in front of you, but you can’t quite get past all the layers of fabric in your way.

Lauren O'Neal is an MFA student at San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Hairpin. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal. More from this author →