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Small Town Odds

Small Town Odds

by Jason Headley

Chronicle Books

Eric Mercer is stuck in the small town in which he grew up. When we first meet Eric, he seems like just another drunk redneck, who would, of course, be stuck in his sleepy West Virginia town. But soon, we learn more about him, his current situation, and the circumstances that led to it, and we begin to sympathize. Through deft use of alternating chapters, we live a week of Eric’s life, while also visiting key moments in his youth that made him the man he is today — a single father whose dreams of college have been replaced with working two part-time jobs in the town he always wanted to leave.

Throughout Jason Headley’s Small Town Odds, Eric is really the character who comes alive in the story. The rest of the characters — the well-meaning friend, the concerned parents, the former girlfriend, the cute child — threaten to never rise above placeholder status, but Headley manages to infuse each one with enough personality to cement them in your imagination. The actual placeholders, third-string characters you never really get to know, serve their purpose to move the story along but never make a lasting impression. But Eric quickly becomes someone you’ve known. He’s the guy you see making stupid choices, and no matter how many times you try to help him out, he continues down the same path. With Eric, that manifests in drinking to excess and getting into fights, with the result often being a run-in with the local law.

Headley paints a highly accurate picture of small town life and how it feels to want to reach beyond it. I grew up in a similarly-sized town myself, so I have no idea how well his description will serve readers with a different background. Maybe they won’t believe a lot of the things that happen or the types of people you run into, but they do exist in Small Town America, and Headley captures them perfectly. His grasp of dialogue is probably the strongest feature of the story. Eric’s voice is distinct, apart from the townspeople he deals with on a regular basis, and emphasizes the distinction between his desperation and their day-to-day lives.

This is Headley’s first novel and not a perfect book. Some plot threads are introduced and then discarded without resolution. But this is a fine debut, partly because Headley doesn’t take the easy way out. Several times in the book, especially at the end, there are openings for clichéd moments that could take the expected route. Headley avoids these, making the book both more personal and more powerful.

www.chroniclebooks.com

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Water In Darkness

Water In Darkness

by Daniel Buckman

Akashic Books

Some people, thorough no fault of their own, lose control of their lives and fall into the semi-unemployed, semi-homeless drifter alcoholic life style. Other people, perhaps more fortunate, end up in the same place, but have the kindness of evil outside forces to blame that situation on — abusive homes, drugs, Vietnam, or having had daddy shot in Vietnam. This is a story of those people, how they started low and slid lower, kicked in the face by themselves and the people they meet, into an internal abyss that can never be filled with cheap hookers, cheap booze, and senseless violence.

Jack Tyne joined the paratroopers for no reason other than there was no reason not to. Danny Morrison shot American troops in Hue City to save them from the worse death of no death for hours, and because the damn VC wouldn’t come out and stand still. Now they both wander around the nightmare city of Chicago, Danny kicked off the police force for smoking crack, and Jack with nothing real but a longing for the father he never saw and would have hated had they ever met. At least Danny has a gun, and when you plug a local in this ‘hood, there’s no police response, no ambulance, no funeral. Just one less person sucking up oxygen and Thunderbird.

So, what’s the story? You just heard it. It’s a bleak land filled with desolation, loss, and hopelessness. The postcard views from hell are sharply inscribed, the nowhere to go and nothing to do world of the homeless and under-employable drawn with a crystal sharpness. There’s no love, damn little companionship, and every five pages, someone vomits, passes out from a beating, or gets their head split from no particular reason. A few things stick in my mind — Danny giving up crack with no struggle, the author’s confusion about how an acetylene torch functions, and the violent drifter who offers to wire Jack some money from California as soon as he finds work. Beyond that, there’s only a sparkle of broken glass on every corner, confused characters and situations, and the feeling that even without the big bad war and the big bad army and big bad missing daddy, these losers couldn’t write their name in the snow with a stencil. You’re not going to go feed any of these guys on Thanksgiving, no matter how guilty you feel.

http://www.akashicbooks.com