Acts of Contrition by Craig Clevenger from Warmed & Bound – review

reviewed by Barry Graham

Warmed and BoundElmore Leonard has said that one of the things that makes his prose so compelling is that he leaves out the parts readers tend to skip over. This is advice that Craig Clevenger would do well to heed.

It’s not that Clevenger is a bad writer. Rather, it’s that he’s too in love with the sound of his own voice, and so he takes too long to say too little. His story could be cut to the length of this review without losing anything. Imagine a talented chef with a pantry full of spices, some of which are fierce and some of which are bland, but all of which he likes. Now imagine that chef tossing all of them into the soup. That soup would taste the way this story reads.

His one-line descriptions are terrific; witness, “The bathroom smelled like an outhouse and had almost as little light.” Or, describing a hitchhiker, “White sweatshirt and ragged sunbleached hair, a ghost with her thumb to the road.” But, for every one like those, he has two or three that fall flat, and he can’t seem to shut himself up.

This is a pity, because if you can get past Clevenger’s purple prose, there’s a real power in this mini-road-movie of a story, a haunting hybrid of Flannery O’Connor and James M. Cain. Its flaws don’t keep it from being good, but they keep it from being great. Not a lot actually happens; the nervous and angry narrator, who wants to be a prophet, drives through the desert and picks up hitchhikers… but, though he does nothing remarkable, you may find that you remember him, without knowing why, with the same fragmented brooding he’s prone to.

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