I thought it might be a bit disingenuous for me to review Eryk Pruitt’s latest, “Townies: and Other Stories of Southern Mischief”. To give you a gauge of how much I liked the book, even with me in possession of the printed ARC, I ordered a copy that the great unwashed get to buy. But I also like drinking bourbon and eating barbecue with Eryk. Decisions had to be made. So instead of a review of a collection of short stories, Eryk was gracious enough to talk about short stories
David: Do you remember where the idea came from for “Knockout” or how you came to write the story? (Readers, you can read “Knockout” for free at Out of the Gutter.)
Eryk: In 2014, I took a trip which involved stops in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Before leaving, I caught wind of the Knockout Game, which involved folks in these Rust Belt inner-cities who recorded themselves punching unsuspecting victims in the face, and the lives this damaged. When I write a story, I usually look for the opportunity to learn about something that I can’t fully comprehend, then effectively “teach” that lesson in a fictive sense. This game fit that bill.
David: “Knockout” is told in the second person. Several of your stories in short story collection, “Townies and Other Tales of Southern Mischief” are told in the second person. And even if they aren’t told in the second person, there is a style of the author unmistakably telling the reader a story. Can you talk a bit about this style of the writer being ever present in the story telling?
Eryk: A majority of my later fiction was written to be read aloud at Noir at the Bar events. I’ve always felt that a successful public reading makes great use of the intimate relationship between the reader and his/her audience. The use of second person is a helpful device to facilitate that intimacy. Also, nearly everything I’ve written in one tense was probably written in a different tense in an earlier draft. I’ll try out a few different things until I feel it’s got the sound I’m looking for.
David: Let’s chat about the importance of first lines. There are jarring ones in “Townies” like “The blood puddled beneath her husband, then slithered between the kitchen floor tiles she had only last week re-grouted.” (The Joe Flacco Defense) and “Horace Moncrief had mown clear up one end of his yard and down the other, then was ready to go after the patch on the side when he saw the dog get hit by the car.” (Town and Gown). But then you have these other first lines that deceptively plain like “Some things you can’t never get used to.” (Knacker) and “You always loved her arms.” (Sixteenths). These are similar to the first line of “Knockout” which is this: “A person’s phone tells you a lot about them.” Let’s talk a moment about the difficulty of the first line. The first lines I mention above grab the readers in different ways and set different moods. Thoughts about the importance of first lines and the work to get them just right?
Eryk: I wish I had magic powers like Donald Ray Pollock and could nail an exciting first line every time out. That guy has sick skills. However, a lot of the times, the function of my first line is to set up the second line, and then the third and so on and so forth. In the instances you list above, I tried to add an extra relevance to the “deceptively plain” first lines which becomes more apparent once the reader finishes the story. However, I distinctly remember that with “Knacker,” I cut about 5000 words that preceded “Some things you can’t never get used to.” I didn’t realize until I’d been writing that story for two weeks that everything I’d done to that point was mere backstory notes. The action didn’t kickstart until that line.
David: Flash fiction in crime fiction usually has a twist that other flash fiction tends to shy away from. Throughout the “Knockout” the reader is expecting they’re traveling down one path and then you say, “Fuck that, this is what’s going on.” This almost goes back to the first question, but how have you seen your stories change from inception to their final draft as you try to get the true gotcha moment?
Eryk: I am a huge fan of the way Stanley Kubrick told stories. Look back over his varied career and you’ll find a very simple, but elegant, structure. Almost all his stories begin on one track, and then the second half of the movie turns the story on its head and sends the characters he’s established into a different direction. It’s a brilliant way to tell two stories at once and maneuver an established cast of characters through a landmine of plot and I don’t mind stealing the technique from him.
David: “Townies” is not all flash fiction; you have stories from less than 700 words to one that checks I at over 22, 000 and everywhere in between. Can you talk about the sweet spot of matching the story to the appropriate story length?
Eryk: A lot of time, the story will dictate the length. I have a tendency to overwrite, so in the editing process I can come back and reframe the narrative to fit a particular word count. Most markets I found go for that 3000-5000 word range, and, when left to my own devices, my short fiction tends to adapt to those restrictions. Flash fiction (less than 1000 words) is very hard, but no crime writer’s career is complete until they’ve been accepted into Out of the Gutter or Shotgun Honey, so I accepted the challenge.
The title story, “Townies,” was a new piece, written specifically for the collection. There have been a couple of times that I’ve let a story air out and ended up with something in the 12-20K word range which, in this industry, can be a death knell. Nobody wants something that size. However, I was fortunate to have the guiding hand of Jason Pinter at Polis Books to help me shape Townies. I had a couple of disastrous ideas for how I wanted my first short story collection to look and he took the time to help steer me through these rocky waters. One of his many valued suggestions was to create something with weight that could anchor the collection, regardless of word count. Not only was I super grateful for his publishing expertise, but I jumped at the chance to operate without a leash.
David: You read at quite a few Noir at the Bars and I noticed several of the stories collected in “Townies” were ones that I heard you read. Are you planning on writing some new stories?
Eryk: For the past decade, I’ve kept scraps of paper with unused story ideas in my desk’s “Later Drawer.” I could write every day until I’m called home to Glory and not use all the paper in that drawer. I count myself lucky. So yes, I’ll write more stories for Noir at the Bar and I have a couple stories recently published that aren’t collected in Townies. I pay homage to a Dallas wrestling dynasty with my short story “The Last of the High Flying Van Alstynes” in Adam Howe’s “Wrestle Maniacs”. I also wrote for two memorial collections, each benefitting charities on behalf of two fallen comrades in the crime fiction community. I wrote “I’ll Be Your Mirror” for the Lou Reed inspired fiction antho “Dirty Boulevard”, which honored Jonathan Ashley. You’ll also find my tribute to early life in Durham, North Carolina, titled “Pin Hooked” in “Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace”.
In the Drive-By Trucker’s seminal album Decoration Day there’s a song called “Outift” where a father gives some advice to his son with lines like “Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit” or “Don’t ever say your car is broke”. But one of the lines that stuck with me is, “Don’t worry about losing your accent, a Southern Man tells better jokes.” I’ve had the pleasure to listen to Eryk Pruitt read at a Noir at the Bar, I can vouch that Pruitt tells much better jokes than most. I tell you this because when reading What We Reckon the words drip Pruitt’s voice.
Pruitt’s What We Reckon (Polis Books) begins with Jack and Summer held up in a hotel waiting for fake Texas IDs. They are hunkered down because Jack has stolen a kilo of cocaine and they are on their way to a new life in East Texas. Jack had reached out to an old friend for the IDs, but Jack as always wants more, Jack wants to see what else he can get for himself.
Craig threw up a hand. “You’ve got a way of dragging people down with you and, if it’s all the same, I want to be left out of it. One day or another, someone’s going to get a hold of you. The law or worse, and I can’t have it leading back to me.” He slipped the truck into gear, then didn’t so much as nod as he backed out of the motel lot and, in a spray of gravel and rock, got himself onto the freeway.
Jack stood there a spell. First, he felt awful. Craig’s words, like ricochet, pierced him and knocked him senseless. Then, up came the fury. He’d become quite skilled at starting anew and wasn’t accustomed to someone popping in from his past to throw fast a finger in judgment. It was all he could do to keep from climbing into the shitty Honda they’d just bought and chase down his old friend to run him off the road, give him the what-for he’d probably had coming since they were little.
Eventually, all of that settled and left him standing alone with only the fluorescent hum of the street lamps and the faraway din of traffic. It was easy to hate, thought Jack. It was easy to fly off the handle and take your eyes off the prize.
More difficult was to keep focus.
To learn from one’s mistakes.
Perhaps Craig had a point. Perhaps things had run somewhat off the rails. Perhaps time for a change beckoned. Perhaps it was time he shed himself of Summer or Jasmine or whatever her name was, lest she drag him down.
But he had many things to do before that day came. For one, he had a stolen kilo of cocaine to unload. For another, he had to carefully map the quickest backwoods route into East Texas. And, more pressing, he had about three-quarters of corn liquor left in that bottle back in the room.
He slapped his palms against his thighs, as if brushing them clean, then headed back inside to see if maybe Summer would snap out of it long enough to help him finish it.
What We Reckon is filled with love, drugs, jealousy, more drugs, rage, and then more drugs. Jack and Summer make it to East Texas and that’s where Summer comes to life. In a brief afternoon, her years of experience following Phish and other jam bands, move her from one group of stoners to their dealers and so forth. Jack, on the other hand, is a bit older than the college kids that Summer deals with so he stews in his own thoughts, paranoia, and wild-ass dreams. Though Jack and Summer might have a plan, their history of plans end up going to shit through all the faults of their own. Not all criminals are drug addicts, but drug addicts do make the shittiest criminals.
The dynamic between Jack and Summer is the most interesting part of this book. These characters consistently fail to connect with one another and even when they do come close, it’s always askew. Not only destroying themselves, their toxicity infects those around them. Theirs is a slow-moving clusterfuck. Watching Jack and Summer is not like watching a car crash, no, it’s more like watching an obliterated couple, one totally fucked up and the other trying to care for them until something new drug or bottle comes along and they disappear. What We Reckon is a great read and as fun as that time when Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue decided to cut loose.