Mark Paxson has this thing he does where he tells a story beginning with seemingly-innocuous prompts and making them a starting point to craft wonderful characters. He can use anything for raw material, and from it weave a tapestry full of the most vibrant and memorable figures.
Some of his stories, like those in this collection, are quick sketches in terms of length, but in terms of depth might as well be full-length novels. The characters are deep, well-rounded and developed. In a few words, he shows us a whole world, populated with real people. The simplest way I can say it is, reading Paxson is like experiencing a combination of a John Steinbeck novel and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
Some examples include one of my favorite stories in this book, “The Life of a Shoe.” Told from the perspective of, yes, a shoe, it tells a powerful story of growing up, experiencing hardship, and having faith. Or take “The Rosewood,” which gives us a picture of all the residents of an apartment complex, and how their disparate lives intertwine in different ways.
In some of Paxson’s works, there are recurring patterns, like leitmotifs in music. The family dynamic in “What Happens When A Pet Dies” shares a little with that in “Deviation”: two bickering siblings confronting their relationship with themselves and their parents. And the irresponsible protagonist of “Nobody Important” is just about as thoughtless as the protagonist of Paxson’s early novel, One Night in Bridgeport, acting without considering the consequences.
Then there are the stories about war and the people who become caught up in it, like “Memories of Foom” and “Aleppo.” A more satirical take on war is found in “The Last Dance.” There are stories of relationships gone right (“Spaces After The Period”) and gone very wrong. (“Beelzebub & Lucifer”) And then there are the pieces like “An Obituary,” “Coyote,” and “Carnies” that defy categorization.
Interspersed throughout the book are fragments of poetry and flash fiction which are every bit as haunting and moving as the longer stories they serve to season.
Every time I read a collection of Mark’s stories, I’m struck by how versatile and imaginative he is, and this one is no different. If you’ve read his other books, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about it; you’ve probably already picked this one up.
If you haven’t read Paxson before, this is a fine collection to start with. I loved it, and I think anyone who enjoys good fiction will too. Go ye now, and pick it up already!
Oh, ah, that’s right… there is one other story in this collection, isn’t there? One that I didn’t discuss yet. The titular piece. The one about killing a certain author, yes?
I figured that one would grab your eye. It’s on the cover, after all. Perhaps it’s my vanity talking, but I have to assume it got the attention of a few readers.
But, why spoil such a great hook? No, no; if you read my blog, then you simply have to read this book, and this story in particular. What is the story behind the story, you wonder? Never fear, for Paxson will tell, as he does with all the stories. But first you have to read it for yourself, with as few preconceived notions as possible.
So I’ll say nothing about it, except this: it’s perfect. Perfect for what it is and what it was meant to be. Anything more than that is for you to say.
Killing Berthold Gambrel is a must-read.