Any Deadly Thing, by Roy Kesey. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books, 2013. 180 pages. $15.95, paper.
Sometimes I remember that the world is big. I remember this in the context of thinking about how the world is often small. In reading Roy Kesey’s short story collection Any Deadly Thing, I thought often of the places his characters go, both geographically and emotionally. This idea of distance takes the reader to South America, Beijing, the American South. Kesey’s world is as big as he can imagine it.
In these large, faraway places are usually two people experimenting with the space they’re forced to cohabitate. In the portion of their lives we’re presented with, the good stuff often seems ready to arrive despite the stories all beginning and ending in odd spots, the story going on, always.
Of the first half of the collection, “The Wall” is the most successful at making all of these things work. It’s surprisingly by-the-books as far as style goes, but it remains mostly odd, remains mostly Kesey. Though the wall metaphor is perhaps ripped too closey from a workshop style story, that’s the cost of the trade off: more resolution for less personalization. From “The Wall:”
Ernie sat up in bed, watched the end of Lauren’s session on the exercycle, wished he still smoked. A week since their mess of an anniversary, and he still couldn’t believe how things had gone: Lauren insisting they stay at the bar, ordering round after round, making him dance with the pros, inviting them to sit down at the table and join in the discussions about what a shit he was for fucking up their evening. At one point he’d said that it wasn’t even a real anniversary, and that it was her fault they’d lost the reservation, at which point she yelled You call that moral equivalence?
Not long after that, she started making out with Baggy just to get him lit. She asked the girls how much for a three-way, how much for a four-way, then turned and told Ernie that he wouldn’t be one of the ways. It took most of an hour to get her out of the bar and into a taxi home.
The pull between two people and the ways they wrap around one another through misinterpretations and half-truths is what makes “The Wall” one of Kesey’s finest stories. This turns up everywhere in the collection, in stories necessary and stories not-so-necessary. “Levee” takes the literary tinges of “The Wall”—marital troubles are traded out for family troubles—and personalizes it even more, showing how a father and son deal with one another in the wake of their wife/mother’s abuse and subsequent suicide.
Unfortunately, for every “Levee” there are some non-starters. These stories almost always need to be shorter or longer, are nicely written and hint at something bigger, but, overall, miss crucial parts whose allusions to are, sadly, almost enough.
One of these perhaps-too-long stories, “Stillness,” is thoroughly wonderful. Again, there are two central characters and a loss between them—a man and his nephew on a hunting trip after their sister/mother has died—but the lingering of those both living and dead make this one of the stand-outs, the realization of grit Kesey flirts with. From “Stillness:”
Garrett’s back at the cemetery for the second time in two months. His mother hadn’t let his little brother Blaine play Taps at the original funeral—she was pissed at the VA for not sending the flag in time, said the song wasn’t worth hearing if that’s the way they were going to be—plus their nephew Aaron just got back to the U.S. from someplace in Europe last week, showed up in Fallash for the first time in years and wanted to see the grave. So now here they are, Garrett and Blaine and the nephew, and of course the brothers’ father stretched out down deep.
Overall, the collection is wildly uneven and I keep coming back to the questions of why these stories and why so many of them? Any Deadly Thing, at 227 pages, has within it an excellent book of less than half the length.
I don’t mean this as a slight. I only mean to say that I don’t know how he decided what to put in the book and what to leave out of it. The stylistic theme of too much/not enough I mentioned before dominates everything, often goes overtop the creativity of the tales and the personas of the characters. Stories add up in odd ways and when the end comes, it’s not the end, but merely the way through.
Even at its best, the collection comes to a certain oddness where the resolution is yet to be written, as if the story has been told too soon. This is perfectly exemplified in “Stump,” which might be the best story in the collection despite suffering from the same problems as other winners here: information missing regarding a main character, an odd ending that leaves too much implied, and long stretches where nothing much happens.
Are these stories a purposeful departure in order to break from the tradition of narrative? And, if so, is the story better off because of it? Essentially, this is a worthless question, as we would be talking about two very different stories were this structure altered. In this manner, I can suggest this collection as a deviation from the downsides one might find in starting and ending a story in places that feel natural and right, places that may have become old hat to some. If nothing else, newness breeds newness, bigger places growing and growing.
Ryan Werner is a janitor in the Midwest. He is the author of the short-short story collection Shake Away These Constant Days (Jersey Devil Press, 2012). He runs the small chapbook press Passenger Side Books, is on Twitter @YeahWerner, and has a website here.