Shoulder Wounds No. 7

Reviews of novels by Alec Cizak, Ava Black, Greg F. Gifune, and Rick Outzen.

Shoulder Wounds

When we last saw Chelsea Farmer, in Alec Cizak’s DOWN ON THE STREET, she had come to the end of the worst week of her life, as a call girl who was beaten, raped, drugged and enslaved in the course of that short career.

But just because that career came to an end doesn’t mean that Chelsea’s life got any better. In fact, every week since has been progressively worse. In a sort-of-sequel, BREAKING GLASS, Chelsea has traded in sex for drugs, and the opening pages find her living in a filthy hotel room with a pseudo-family of fellow losers who scrape by via home-invasion robberies in Indianapolis’s nicer neighborhoods.

In one of those neighborhoods, Chelsea thinks about who she was before opioids took her over. She could have married her high-school prom date, now a pharmaceutical executive, she muses. But she didn’t, and now, “he’d gone on to become a cyber-security specialist for Eli Lilly and now lived in one of those houses on Meridian Street Chelsea sometimes robbed with Heather and the boys. In a different world altogether, she never got hooked on dope, never moved in with her junky friends and, certainly, never got so broke that she had to steal other people’s stuff to get through the night without feeling like bad spiders had placed a thousand fishing hooks in her body and threatened to rip them out at the same time.”

BREAKING GLASS is a character-first, plot-last novel, but it’s worth noting that Chelsea gets a brief taste of the good life when her estranged mother seeks her out because she’s married rich, and is able to help her get back on her feet, into rehab, maybe back into school. Chelsea wants it, but she’s wise enough to know that the opioids want her more than her mother does. And that the cost of that epiphany will almost certainly be a high body count.

In 2018, it’s not an easy thing to be a man writing into a female point-of-view, but Cizak succeeds marvelously at this high-risk undertaking for two simple reasons: 1) he clearly knows what it’s like to be enslaved by drugs; and 2) he bypasses the usual male temptation to paint women as sexual beings. In fact, because Cizak knows opioids so well, he knows that they kill the sexual part of being. Chelsea has no interest in even the most transactional of sex, and therefore you won’t see her even acknowledge herself in terms of attractiveness, or lack thereof. That world is beyond her and beneath her at the same time.

BREAKING GLASS is essential reading for anybody with any interest in understanding the opioid crisis that’s gripping America on a human level and not just a statistical one. Which should make it essential reading for everyone. It succeeds on every level. The prose is energetic and raw yet supple in a way that only a polished talent can produce. Every page thrums with pleasurable uncertainty, keeping the reader wondering just what will become of this young woman and who will have to be sacrificed on the altar of her screaming needs. This novel deserves a place in the growing canon of addict literature, and Alec Cizak deserves a bigger megaphone for his barbaric yawps.

Speaking of screwed-up young women, meet Samantha Holland, the antiheroic heroine of Ava Black’s debut novel THE BUG JAR: “Normal is a state of mind that sane people disregard. They shouldn’t. I’d do anything to be normal, but I’m not. I’m a lipstick salesgirl who hopes she didn’t kill a kid.”

Samantha, like Chelsea, is a former college student in her early twenties. But for her, drugs are a wobbly source of salvation: she’s mentally ill and weaves between a medicated semi-zombie state and a lively but horrendously messy hypomanic mode. The latter manifests itself in reckless, self-destructive affairs with two men: Richard, a serially philandering rich man on the fast track to being the next mayor of Chicago, and Mark, a backwoods-Wisconsin redneck who loves Samantha, gives her anything she wants, and is desperate to pin her down into marriage and a life of mechanic’s wife. (Guess which one Samantha wants, and perhaps might even kill to have?)

THE BUG JAR sometimes wobbles as much as Samantha. For one, the characters tend to whipsaw all over the place, from friendly to scalding to weak, seemingly acting more out of the plot’s needs than their own. (For instance, the grease-monkey boyfriend’s love for Samantha seems guileless and sincere, yet he exhibits hints of menace and manipulation in her presence that seem at odds with his infatuation.) And two, any suspension of disbelief for the jam-packed plot requires the reader to buy into a shopworn thriller conceit: that one person is willing to invest enormous amounts of time, energy and money into a complicated gaslighting campaign aimed at another individual.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Ava Black writes well, and she’s got that thing that literary agents say they value more than almost anything else: a crackling voice. THE BUG JAR is full of colorfully acidic observations that give this nimbly paced novel an extra shot of glide: “You’re probably thinking that I have sex with anything that moves, and that all the people around me wind up dead, but that’s not true. I reported his death to the sheriff and called the detective. This morning I took meds.”

Whatever THE BUG JAR’s faults, Samantha Holland never fails to be less than utterly compelling company, even when the novel dives into the blacker shades of dark. Much of the third act of the novel takes place in a mental hospital, and what happens there would make a reader shit a stack of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST sideways. (Ava Black knows crazy like Alec Cizak knows addiction.) THE BUG JAR is the rare flawed novel that I recommend, as a showcase for Ava Black’s enormous talent and upside, which I can’t wait to see married to a better sense of watertight storycraft in her subsequent novels.

Greg F. Gifune is best known as a horror novelist, but his DANGEROUS BOYS is firmly rooted in the grit and grime and grease of the temporal world. Comparisons to Dennis Lehane and MYSTIC RIVER are inevitable, given the similarities of the knife-edged city streets and the knockaround young men that populate this novel. But DANGEROUS BOYS is much lighter on its feet, bucking up under its weighty themes without losing a step in its deceptively brisk pacing.

The story: In 1984, Richie, closing in on twenty, spends his days getting into fights, committing petty crimes and generally preparing himself for a long life in prison or a short life, period. But, much like Gordie Lachance in Stephen King’s THE BODY, a growing love of literature has given him the ability to dream of a life beyond the one he seems destined for. But can’t see ever turning his back on his friends, who see escalating their criminal pursuits as the only way of elevating their lifestyles above the street.

Aldo, the leader of Richie’s pack and nephew of the neighborhood mob boss, spells it out to Richie in a few brutal strokes: “Problem with you, man, is you think you got options. You don’t. You ain’t gonna work some stupid job, and even if you do, you won’t last. Know why? Because guys like us ain’t got the temperament for crap, and it’s only a matter of time before you’d fuck it up. Why wind up a petty criminal, out there on your own, when you could work for Uncle Lou instead? Don’t make no sense.”

It’s familiar literary territory, yet you won’t be thinking of predecessors or influences when you read DANGEROUS BOYS. All you’ll be thinking about is, what do you do when the guys you’ve been best friends with all your life — the ones who have your back no matter what, the ones whose bonds make no room for the women in their lives — are the ones who will almost certainly bring you down? For Richie, it will take the planning and execution of a big-time crime — one that will almost certainly come with a terrifying body count — to arrive at his answer.

And it’s an answer you will be desperate to know and unable to guess, making DANGEROUS BOYS a coming-of-age page-turner of the first rank.

There are some things I could criticize about CITY OF GRUDGES as a crime novel. It’s heavy on exposition and, until its final pages, light on incident. Its cast sometimes seems too wide and its members tend to tiptoe in and out of the narrative in too-tidily stage-managed intervals, and many of the most-named folks rarely appear on stage at all. The lengthy history lessons sometimes feel like the languid monologues of a drunk at the end of a bar.

And the novel goes out of its way to portray Walker Holmes, the scrappy investigative reporter/editor/publisher of a scrappy independent weekly with a crusading bent, as a loner outside the local power structure — but for a loner, he’s got an awful lot of friends.

I could criticize, but I won’t, because somehow the whole succeeds despite the parts, which form a plot too complicated to unpack in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that it involves corruption at the highest levels of Pensacola, Florida’s private and public sectors, a suicide that probably isn’t a suicide, and blood feuds that mostly go back decades.

I suspect that CITY OF GRUDGES aims less to be a commercially slick crime novel than a charmingly cockeyed love letter to the author’s hometown of Pensacola, Florida. (It comes as no surprise to learn that author Rick Outzen is the editor and publisher of Pensacola’s alternative weekly newspaper.) And at that it succeeds marvelously.

CITY OF GRUDGES, like its journalist author, is an exceedingly competent piece of work — and no more so than when it makes Pensacola a lead character of sorts. Whatever else your takeaways are from this novel, you’ll know Pensacola — both as its own cheerfully corrupt creature and as an avatar of cheerfully avaricious Southernness — and you’ll be better for it.

Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at

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