Monday, May 9, 2011
"Every Shallow Cut" by Tom Piccirilli
Wow! How can you not want to read a book with that as the first line on the back cover? I had picked this for the branch quite a while back, so it took me a minute to recognize it when it finally arrived (sort of like when I add books to my Amazon Wishlist, then forget why months later). I read the whole back cover, then started flipping through it while I did our usual processes for checking in new books - and before I realized it I'd already read the first chapter! Obviously this book wanted to go home with me, so I checked it out and home it came.
I don't normally gush about authors or their works as a rule, and I'm going to try not to do that here either, but damn; this guy is good, very good. I blew through this in no time at all, then actually went back and read it again to see if I'd missed anything. I never do that! And on the second reading, I did get more out of it, which changed my initial opinion about the nameless protagonist.
When the story opens, our "hero" has just been punched in the face by a punk outside a pawn shop. He starts flashing back on how he arrived at the pawn shop, again and for the last time; he was once a minorly successful writer with a wife living in Colorado and enjoying his life. Granted, each book was more of a critical success and less of a popular one (which meant less and less money), and granted his wife doesn't seem to love him much anymore, and granted he's been keeping up with the bills - just barely - but his life is pretty good. Then the bottom falls out of the economy and everything spirals into the toilet. His wife leaves him for "Sweetie", his publisher won't answer his calls, the collectors come for all his furniture (well, what his wife didn't take with her), and the bank forecloses on his house. When he arrives at this pawn shop for the last time, he's got nothing left but some clothes, the pieces he's going to pawn, and his bulldog, Churchill. He's gone from an overweight, doughy intellectual living the high life to a lean, mean, perhaps fighting machine. Why not fight? He didn't fight when he was losing everything, so why not do it now?
And fight he does; he buys a gun from the pawn shop owner after beating down the thug that hit him, and his two friends. Then he heads out from Colorado to the east coast to see his brother, a meeting that he dreads with every fiber of his being. Once upon a time, his brother loved him, even encouraged him to write, thought he was so smart. But that changed somewhere along the way, and his brother has shown nothing but contempt for him since they were teenagers. But if you can't go home, where can you go?
It's a powerful work, and when I read some reviews on Amazon, I came across a new term, one evidently coined just for these small pieces by Piccirilli - "Noirella". Perfect! It's definitely got the feel of a noir work, and it's definitely a novella, so "noirella" describes it perfectly. Now to what I realized on my second reading.... Yes, the author has nothing left to lose, and yes, he's spiralling out of control, and yet, he never really loses control. The ending is left ambiguous enough that you can decide what he does next, but I wouldn't agree with the nameless narrator, that he's now like the characters he used to write about, hard, lean men who get into fights at the drop of a hat. The narrative bounces from present to past seamlessly, and you can tell that despite what he says, the narrator does feel like there's something left to his life, no matter how small or tenuous it is.
Piccirilli's got a masterful way with the dialogue, too. When our writer friend visits a buddy of his out East, he leaves his newest creation in his backpack. The buddy reads it after drugging our narrator into a 48-hour nap. Describing the new work, his buddy says this: "There's a poignancy to it that's lacking in most of your other novels. You're writing from the marrow. I can feel every shallow cut you've ever suffered in it, all of them still bleeding, tearing wider and becoming deeper. You can die from a paper cut if it becomes infected. That's what I feel in your words now."
I will definitely be picking up more of Piccirilli's work. I can only hope that they live up to my now very-high expectations.