Jack Waters by Scott Adlerberg

27749912_1580231515377684_3396357469409204750_nIn the first few sentences of Scott Adlerberg’s Jack Waters (Broken River Books), the reader knows immediately that we are in a different world with phrases like “there lived a man named Jack Waters” and “other gamblers envied his consistent success, but the admired his self-control”. Adlerberg’s story is more of a fractured fairy tale, a tale told in plain and unembellished prose that holds its beauty close rather than flash flowery phrases.

Waters is a man of grace and dignity. But he gives no quarter to the impropriety of cheating and welching at the poker table.

His craven behavior made Waters even angrier. The boy had the gall to cheat in his house, and then to think he could depart unscathed. In a flash, like a panther, Waters leapt over the round oak table, scattery cards and chips. He jumped onto the boy and they fell to the floor. The others yanked at his arms and shoulders, but they couldn’t get a grip on him. Waters pushed them away. He drew from under his shirt the long retractable knife he always carried for protection, and ignoring the boy’s cries for mercy, stabbed him in the heart.

Through the help of his friends Waters leaves New Orleans for a Carribean island nation. He is warned by his friend of two things: stay out of politics and don’t play cards with the President of the country. Waters might be an exceptional poker player with the ability to read players at the table, but outside the gambling room, Waters is oblivious to those around him. This is to blame partly on his hubris and for having lived a rather prosper life. Water’s self-absorption is, often times, debilitating.

Scott Adlerberg’s Jack Waters has a Latin American feel to it, not only because it is set in a Spanish-speaking Carribean island, it is because Adlerberg the ability to introduce the absurd without agitation, the preposterous becomes normal, and the ordinary becomes poetic. With Jack Waters, Adlerberg allows the story to come to him, the words don’t force the action and its consequences, rather there is a harmony between “the book” and its pages. Adlerberg’s Jack Waters is a slow read, only so that one can cherish every word.

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Jungle Horses by Scott Adlerberg

jungle-horses-by-scott-adlerbergScott Adlerberg’s Jungle Horses (Broken River Books) is the first book I’ve read by him. I first noticed Adlerberg’s writing in his weekly column in Do Some Damage, all well written and engaging, seemingly a word never out of place. And more often than not, I learn something from his columns. I picked up Jungle Horses as I had Adlerberg’s newest book, Jack Waters near the top of my TBR and I wanted to get a taste of his early fiction before I read his latest work. I had no idea what to expect of Jungle Horses as I shy away from publisher’s descriptions as a rule as they will either have nothing or everything to do with the book.

Jungle Horses opens with Arthur dreaming of horses running in a lush land – horses unlike the racing horses he bred in Africa or the ponies he bets on every day in post-war London. Then Arthur begins his day like all his days thinking of horse racing while eating breakfast with his wife, Jenny, who most likely just arrived home after spending the night with her lover, their friend, and neighbor, Vaughn.

He grabbed his robe and went to the kitchen and there together they drank their tea. They read the papers, which she’d brought in, and geared up each in silence for the vagaries of the day. For Jenny this would mean dealing with customers, deflecting rudeness, suggesting a sweet for the loved one or the missus; for Arthur it would mean the accelerating pulse as he stood rooting for his horses. When he became wealthy, he’d tell Jenny she could sell the shop and live thereafter without working, and perhaps then, if she was willing, they could embark on a voyage somewhere and he would rediscover what he’d lost. That is, they could go off on a long trip if she agreed to part from Vaughn and Vaughn himself voiced no objections. He had no interest in starting a row or coming between her and Vaughn, but he did want time alone with Jenny as they’d had when living in Africa. Yes, Africa. He kept returning to it in his thoughts, and he knew that in order to persuade her to go, he would have to prove to her that she’d be travelling with a live person, someone possessed of a sexual appetite. She’d made no reference to yesterday evening and his abrupt show of desire, and from this he drew the conclusion that she’d laughed it off completely. His peculiar behavior had passed like a joke, commented on but then forgotten, and sadder even than his wife’s response was what had happened to his body, how this morning he’d come awake with no fire left in his blood. The lust had flared suddenly, coursed through his veins, and died overnight. This morning in his body he had nothing but ash.

Though Arthur tolerates his wife’s affair, he has a secret plan, a pipe dream that he can win enough money gambling to take his wife back to Africa – if only Jenny and Vaughn would allow her to travel alone with her husband. Arthur’s life is filled with prime and properness touched with a heavy dose of passive aggressiveness. Adlerberg trusts the reader that we can make it through long paragraphs, but this only works because he expertly guides us through. A pacing with short and long sentences shows us Arthur’s dreams and their possibilities, but Adlerberg ends the paragraph with Arthur’s reality, “The lust had flared suddenly, coursed through his veins, and died overnight. This morning in his body he had nothing but ash.” I like how “flared” and “ash” play off each other showing futility of his dream.

While the first part of Jungle Horses takes place in London, the second part takes place on a small unnamed Carribean island which Vaughn owns. In the London section, Arthur is beaten down by English manners and in the latter part, Adlerberg writing turns to magical realism, a world that releases Arthur from the confines of his Englishness. The transition between the stoic London and the vibrant Carribean stories stumbles a bit, but in looking back the breadcrumbs were there in the London piece foreshadowing the blossoming Arthur in the Carribean. Scott Adlerberg’s Jungle Horses is an enjoyable meld of noir and magical realism that tells a fantastical story of love and redemption.

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Gravity by Michael Kazepis

Gravity by Michael KazepisMichael Kazepis’ Gravity (Broken River Books) is a great collection of short stories; it is not a crime fiction book. I picked it up as J David Osborne, the publisher of Broken River Books, just puts out phenomenally well-written books. The back catalog is filled with crime fiction by Jake Hinkson, Jedidiah Ayres, and Scott Adlerberg, but the first book I read was Kelby Losack’s Heathenish, though it has crime in it is more of a literary autobiography followed by Gabino Iglesias’ Zero Saints. Broken River Books was 2 for 2 in reading enjoyment and now after Kazepis’ Gravity, it is 3 for 3.

Gravity is nine short stories that bring forth their own images and history such as the absurd “Time in the Shadow of the Thing Too Big to See” that tells the story of a young man named Salvador Dali, “My parents used to tell me I was him. That I was his reincarnation.”

In the story “Thrush,” we meet K who has been assigned to kill Croatian diplomat on the island of Andros in Greece.

K shut the door and walked down the hall to the shared lavatory and took a hot shower, and noticed he couldn’t feel the temperature, like the water was coming out cold, so he turned it up all the way and sat and steam filled the room, and he meditated until the shiver went. Later he took a nap, not because he was tired but because he was bored, and while he slept smoke rolled off his skin as though from out of his pores, and filled the room.”

Each of Michael Kazepis’ stories is written with the same level of care as the excerpt above, every sentence stands on its own wild imagery twisting the reader’s imagination away from ordinariness to a swirling world of supra-naturalism, the words distilling their own wondrous poetry.

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Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias

Zero Saints by Gabino IglesiasI have owned Gabino Iglesias’ Zero Saints (Broken River Books) for a few months now. It sat on my desk staring at me, willing me to read it, but I resisted. And the days turned to months and nothing, this book could not make it from my desk to my hands. I took two trips to Charlotte bringing Zero Saints with me in hopes of turning its pages. Still nothing. At this point, I was more embarrassed for myself than anything else. My vacation started a few days ago and Iglesias’ book was one of the three that I selected to keep me company. Before even considering reading the other two books, this was Zero Saints turn, and finally, I opened the pages and read, “I didn’t hear those pinches cabrones coming. They cracked my skull from behind. Probably expected me to drop like a sack of hammers, but the blow came with too much power and not enough finesse. You can’t just whack someone on the head and expect them to go down for good. Some folks have really hard heads.” Here I was finally reading Iglesias words, a combination of English and Spanish, words of a world unknown to me, words of revenge, words of cowardice, and words of retribution.

After being abducted, Fernando is brought into a house where Nestor, a partner in crime, is tied to a chair. “A silver leach of snot coated his upper lip. His mouth hung open, drooling a gooey combination of saliva and blood onto his chest. I couldn’t spot any teeth in there. I was pregnant with fear, pero el pobre Nestor estaba peor que yo, ya estaba jodido.” This sentence is a fine example of how Iglesias weaves Spanish and English together, not Spanglish, but more of a freedom of sentences without borders.

Forced to witness the brutal murder of Nestor by the Mara Salvatrucha, Fernando is sent to his crime boss Guillermo to tell him there is someone in town that is more savage than him, a demon with black eyes. With his life is filled with ghosts, criminals, monsters, soothsayers, and saints, Fernando spends his nights dealing drugs at a club and doing other jobs for Guillermo. I shy away from saying that Zero Saints teems with superstition because that is not said of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters or William Paul Young’s The Shack.  The religion in Zero Saints is as strong as the book’s settings in Distrito Federal aka Mexico City and the dark streets of Austin — Gabino Iglesias’ Austin is not the city of SXSW.

Over the past year, I read Iglesias’ essays and book reviews, so I am well aware that he can write. I was unaware of how well Iglesias could write. A majority of Zero Saints is told in the first person, but it is the chapters told in the second person that stand out. It is with the few chapters that Iglesias writing shines. If all Zero Saints had were these few chapters, the book would still be better than most of what I read.

Our lives aren’t as great as we want to believe they are, and being afraid is a magnifying glass that makes you see every painful detail, every crack.

What happens when you accept that the lie is over is that you have to change things or ignore them.

What happens when someone takes someone you love away from you is that your lie crumbles but you also fall into a hole and start hating the walls around you. That hate eats you up like a cancer and the only cure es una venganza certera y sangrienta. Action. Don’t let anyone feed you any bullshit when it comes to venganza because something that feels so good, so right, tan cósmicamente correcto, is something that can’t be wrong.

Gabino Iglesias uses the crime genre to instill a sense of urgency to his story but it his writing — beautiful, powerful and, most importantly, fresh — that makes Zero Saints as much of a crime novel as Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is a science fiction book. If you haven’t read Gabino Iglesias’ Zero Saints yet, don’t be a schmuck like me and wait, read it now.

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Heathenish by Kelby Losack

Kelby Losack’s  Heathenish (Broken River Books) devasted me. It has taken me weeks to write this review as I was haunted by my own memories of a friend robbing a bank to fuel his heroin addiction and another friend whose daughter was stabbed to death by her husband in front of their children. Shit. Heathenish has the clarity and importance of a dream forgotten, it’s fucking soul crushing.

Structured as a series of vignettes, Heathenish opens with Losack telling his wife that their marriage is over, not an odd place for a memoir to begin, but considering the couple has three kids and Losack is only twenty years old at the time, one realizes that this is going to be one strange fucking trip. After settling in at his parents, Losack and his friends turn a friend’s house “into a civic center for hoodrats. When the moon comes out, we fulfill our vices. It’s like heaven, if heaven had a secret back room with a filthy mattress beneath a broken Bow flex.”

The house on Sixth Ave is alive tonight. I rub shoulders with strangers, share breathing space with unfamiliar faces. Vyron plugs his laptop into a loudspeaker and plays a beat he made and we get a freestyle circle going. Beads of sweat fly from the swinging hair of intoxicated dancers. Liquor-touched tongues twist together. A golden waterfall is tipped over a tabletop. Someone throws a fist and we throw him out and go back to getting throwed.

Double-stacked Styrofoam cups full of purple stuff.

Open baggies across the floor like popcorn at the cinema.

One hundred hands, five hundred lighters.

Beer cans accordioned on the lawn.

Vomit and piss and someone passed out on the lawn.

I sniff some devil dust and sip some lean and everything is sideways.

It’s Christmastime, and like good Americans, we try to fabricate euphoria and pretend for a moment we have something to celebrate.

What makes Heathenish resonate is Losack’s writing which does not abandon honesty while being disturbingly poetic. Five months into 2017, my top ten list is beginning to take shape and Kelby Losack’s Heathenish is going to be in there somewhere.

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