Reviewed by Matthew C. Funk
There is a music to life’s morbidity.
The classic example of the ticking clock. The bird songs that open our mornings. The dying rustle of traffic in the evening.
Click-Clack by Caleb J. Ross is attuned to these mortal rhythms, and makes them sing seamlessly in a narrative that is as much a ballad as it is lyrical prose. This vignette is a song masquerading as short story. It achieves this with a brilliance as flawless as any modern masterpiece of music.
The principal players in Click-Clack are Jack, a trainspotter by nature and carcass salesman by trade, and his adopted son, Ernie, who he rescues from abandonment as a placenta-cloaked newborn by the side of the tracks. As with all the most resonant ballads, they are iconic: They could simply be called “father” and “son.”
That Caleb Ross gives them distinctive name and character is a service to his work. Click-Clack could have been distilled to its archetypes, but Ross crafts wondrously illustrated personalities. Jack and Ernie are vivid as both symbols in a fable and people in a beautiful and brutal struggle.
That struggle is galvanized by the rhythm of the trains; the resounding dual tone that Jack lived by and Ernie was born by. The path of Jack’s agonies is the mythic dynamic of a father: He must first accept his son, come to love his son, raise his son and, at last, guard his son from the dangers of life.
Ernie’s chief danger is his fascination with the sound that sang him into the world: The click-clack that serves as the clock tick of mortality, seeing life born and raised and killed. And so just as Jack’s character arc is that of a grown, seasoned man giving his life to protect another, Ernie is the youth for whom growing and chasing danger are one in the same.
This deep understanding of the dynamic between father and son is just one aspect of Click-Clack’s beauty. Ross also infuses the work with flourishes of consonance, rhyming words in a subtle way that make the power of rhythm a real force for the reader. He doesn’t resort to breaking conventions of format, either. Ross keeps traditional prose form of paragraphs. His rhythms run through it like tides. They rise and fade in the writing like the passing of trains.
The sole criticism I could find for Click-Clack would be that its descriptions sometimes suffer from extra padding. Some modifiers seem needless. But Caleb Ross so solidly nails every other aspect—making the work sing, giving it soul, giving it flesh, leading it to dance with exactitude and layered art—that a touch of extra flab just lends to the personality. My criticism calls to mind the scene in Amadeus where the Emperor faults Mozart for having “too many notes.”
Click-Clack hits all the right notes. It is a pin-point, sad-hearted portrait of the track of birth and death that fathers and sons must follow. It took on speed, swept me up and kept echoing after it passed.
Do not miss this train.