John Carroll. Safety Third Enterprises, $7 chapbook (50p)
In the surprising and gritty short story collection Slow Burn, Carroll’s characters slump and screw through the banality and tragedy of their everyday lives. As they struggle with the ennui of being trapped or lost in their respective nowhere towns, these sagging characters take time out to show the reader twisted relationships, mental illness, dead fathers, and inflated sexual conquests. The collection opens strong with “Hellhole,” which finds its narrator restless and aggravated by his upstairs neighbor’s mysterious hammering in the middle of the night. The situation intensifies as he attempts to rectify it: “The hammering has become more furious so I have to time my knocking in between swings.” The tension in this story is a nice high point early on. Another high point is Carroll’s ability to evoke a real sense of place in the title story “Slow Burn”: “The smoke clings to the thin layer of humidity that hangs in the Kentucky air as I exhale. It’s still spring, though, so the wind quickly moves it along.” The writing here and throughout is often exceptional. The stories are at their best when they’re sharp and direct and not precariously anchored in their narrator’s swell of bravado. In “Exit 178,” the narrator meditates on the relationship between his grandfather and mother: “It seemed like she loved him, but it makes you wonder if she kept buying him those cartons of Pall Malls just to speed up the process. It took. He died when I was twelve.” However, as the collection moves forward Carroll returns repeatedly to the tepid well of shock value, relying heavily on morally ambiguous narrators like those in “The Perfect Woman” and the final story “Routine Fuck.” The latter finds a group of arrogant men drinking and celebrating their sexual careers and systematic debasement of women with nicknames like “anal sex girl” and “the girl with no boobs.” The stories are written from a first person male perspective that, early on, carries a certain reader-friendly starkness. Later, this perspective grows crasser. Unfortunately, the collection is largely weakened because of this shift. It’s a rough close to what’s otherwise a very promising chapbook of fiction. (2013)
More information on Slow Burn can be found HERE.
Reviewer bio: Mel Bosworth is the author of the novel FREIGHT. Visit his website at melbosworth.com