I just finished Every Shallow Cut a couple days ago and have got to say: Goddammit, man. After reading that, I think I’m hanging up my spurs. Or Moleskine, as it were. I can’t beat it, or really even come close. Please keep in mind that this isn’t a rant, but more of a considered missive. For all those readers who haven’t yet been given their literary comeuppance, let me get them up to speed, just so they understand where I’m coming from. A nameless narrator has, for all intents and purposes, been shanghaied by life: Sweetie stole his wife, the government stole his house, his literary agent has stolen away with other (read: more salable) clients. And now three teenage meth-head sons of bitches are trying to steal the little bit that remains. After dealing with them accordingly, he leaves Denver headed for Long Island, back to his brother, back to someplace where he can try to regroup. Try. Try. Try. Obviously, it doesn’t quite pan out.
Anyway, Tom, here’s a detailed list of grievances. It’s like my own little noir Festivus.
1) The first forty words were enough to make me reevaluate my future as a wordsmith. To wit: “I was three days into my life as a homeless loser drifter when they broke my nose and dropped me on the street in front of a nameless pawn shop. I hit like two hundred pounds of failed dreams.” I mean, really? You might as well throw me off the hay truck, at about noon. With prose like that, descriptions that carve my grey matter into characters’ silhouettes, sentences that are effortlessly poetic yet hard as a whetting stone, I figure I should just bang my face against the keyboard rather than typing, because my stories are made of tin foil and tooth picks in comparison. You and Ben Whitmer are now the bane of my prose’s existence. The thing is, the inherent beauty that the narrator finds in disgusting things is mirrored in your writing. You find the humanizing elements of each awful scene and make it too riveting to avert our eyes. Part of me wonders if this was also a comment on the narrator, this transformation he’s gone through physically, mentally and emotionally, and though he does some bad things, we’re compelled to sympathize with him because, well, we have to. It’s impossible to not be drawn to him. This kind of segues into my next point.
2) Your characters are terrifying. Not Vorhees terrifying, more like the dude next door whose parking space I keep stealing, and I know what’s going to come of it. We’ve read hundreds of stories like this one: Writers writing about writers; following the chemtrail through the twilight of our hero’s demise; the road trip across the American abyss in search of true family, a bulldog as the only companion. And Every Shallow Cut is all of these, but so much more. There’s an intrinsic honesty that is startling, even when we’re complicit in committing these crimes against other men. Perfect example is when the narrator returns home to Long Island. After sleeping in the car, watching his brother’s house for the night, he parks in front of his parents’ old house, letting childhood scenes flash across the back of his skull. A few minutes of sitting brings the owner to the door. He’s “ready to defend the place with his life. If anyone dared to step foot on his property he’d grab up a shotgun. His eyes burned like twin lakes of flaming gasoline. He’d hold the bankers at bay, the police, the SWAT teams, the communists, the alien hordes, the barbaric populace of disintegrating cities.” It’s an intense scene for the narrator, the guilt for not showing the same passion for his own house coupled with the memory of how happy the man and his wife were at signing. And the bottle of wine the narrator left alongside the house keys? Fucking. Perfect. But I’ll get to that gripe in a minute. Once the man’s suspicion is duly raised, the narrator gives him a salute, meant to be commiseration, but instead causes the man to charge out the door. Tires squeal and the man “fell in behind me and sprinted a hundred yards before he finally took a tumble and lay on the asphalt sucking wind. I almost went back to lend him a hand. Or to drive over his throat.” Layers and layers and layers of comment and theme and metafiction? Give the rest of us a break, Tom.
3) The attention to detail really, really killed me. I already mentioned the bottle of wine above. The one that really got me though was the ever-present royalty check the narrator carries in his pocket. Okay, so, symbols and tokens and such are usually present in fiction, the good kind anyway, so it’s not as much that he carries this around with him as the amount that really does me in. When the book starts, he’s just been slugged and dropped his mother’s 19th-century art prints and father’s coin collection. It’s the only thing he has left of his parents and he’s lost it, yet still, the royalty check for $12.37 is second-skin.
I think this is a product of a larger issue, what I described to a friend as the Californication effect. A lot of my friends describe the show as writer-porn, and that’s the best label I can think of. Every Shallow Cut is Californication for (ahem) good writers. Not that there’s anything wrong with the show, but I doubt the scripts will ever be in danger of winning awards. You’ve written a fantastic story, one that inflicts itself on readers. Then you go and add the writerly angle. By pulling in all of these intimations of the trade—weather as metaphor, pat phrases, showing and telling—and at the same time comment on them without disrupting the narrative flow, you’ve created this line of Easter eggs for the writer-reader to follow, scratch in the margins, try to work into their own writing. And then you do all of this while dropping in a couple really funny, unexpected bits. I’m thinking specifically of the “kicking in the shin” part. That alone is worth the purchase price.
Flat out, Tom, Every Shallow Cut is a thing of beauty. I could probably go on about ten other things this book does well—oh, and that’s another thing I forgot about: You did all of this in 22500 words? Really? How is that even possible?—but thinking about this has given me the itch to go write something awesome, and that’s about the best comment I could ever give.