Review of Vanessa Blakeslee’s TRAIN SHOTS

Vanessa Blakeslee. Burrow Press, $15.00 (150 pp) ISBN: 0984953841

Often breathtaking in their poignancy, the stories in Vanessa Blakeslee’s Train Shots feature characters aching for emotional connections they rarely achieve. Deeply flawed and selfish, these characters sometimes behave wretchedly. Yet, it’s not meant as a criticism to say that they’re monstrously self-involved. After all, loneliness can powerfully motivate those obsessed with their own emotional well-being. Blakeslee is drawn to such characters but not because she wants us to level judgments or forgive their defects. She wants us to see into them, not for sympathy’s sake exactly, but for the sake of knowing the lived experience of others. Readers may come to judge selfish characters less harshly, but we’re not encouraged to excuse their faults. The collection’s best stories (such as “Train Shots,” “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” and “Barbecue Rabbit”) make us feel their deep ache for companionship, for someone to share all their burdens. Their lives are terrifying, confused, haunted by sorrow, and—due to nothing more than chance—could easily be our own lives.

Lest it seem the stories are relentlessly bleak, it should be said that characters in Train Shots are chock-full of compelling idiosyncrasy. Blakeslee displays canny accuracy in characterizing details, specifically in using the images her characters perceive and contemplate. In the title story, P.T.—a train engineer—wanders around Winter Park, Florida, after running over yet another person, his third in four months. Passing a homeless man, P.T. recalls his second victim, a “bum outside Jacksonville . . . in drab, loose clothing,” who’d faced down the train and let it run him over. P.T. had been unable to look away because he “wanted to see if the bum would flinch or not.” The victim “raised both arms wide and lifted his chin as if to welcome home a god,” and P.T. noticed “the tilt of the man’s thick glasses on his face,” the man’s balding head “shining through matted gray hair,” and “the tape binding the seams of his coat.” Here, with Blakeslee’s characteristic verve and economy, the images’ progression dramatizes P.T.’s morbid fascination changing to humane pity.

The stories often rely on clever premises, which provide palpable narrative momentum without feeling designed merely to showcase the author’s craftiness. One character goes on an increasingly ludicrous search for a prop he constructed for a costume party (“Ask Jesus”). Another, the mother of a violently troubled teen, acts on her attraction to a much-younger relative (“Barbecue Rabbit”). In perhaps the best example, a lightly disguised Britney Spears contemplates suicide in a hotel, staging a call for help even while photographers struggle to get a valuable photo of her (“Princess of Pop”). Thankfully, this last example doesn’t treat the Spears character in a coy or exploitative way, as we’d expect from a slick satire on celebrity culture. Instead, it’s the desperate loneliness of the Princess of Pop that powers the story, a quality she shares with the other characters in Train Shots. These characters feel plausible, have the heft of flesh-and-blood beings. Readers will come to know them and care about their outcomes, even if they disapprove of their actions. (March 2014)

Purchase Train Shots HERE.

Reviewer bio: Alex DeBonis’s work appears in The Ilanot Review, decomP,, American Book Review, and Small Press Book Review. Though his roots are in the Midwest, he teaches fiction writing, literature, and composition in West Tennessee, where he lives with his family.