Every Kiss a War, by Leesa Cross-Smith

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In the opening lines of “Hold On, Hold On,” a character named Violet offers what could be a manifesto for Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut collection:

My husband, Dominic, got angry the second time I ran away. Because I promised I’d never do it again and because I didn’t have a reason. Because I didn’t need a reason. Because because was a reason.

In Cross-Smith’s stories, men and women make decisions just because. Sometimes they’re good decisions and sometimes they’re bad. Sometimes they’re made just to see how they feel. And almost always, someone’s heart is at stake.

There are twenty-seven stories in Every Kiss A War, many of them set around the Mason-Dixon line. Cross-Smith writes flash and short fiction in the voices of both men and women, typically in the first-person point of view. She thrives in this confessional mode, where characters hold nothing back, no matter how shameful or insecure it may make them seem. Simply put, Cross-Smith writes flawed characters who don’t give a damn about your judgment.

Cross-Smith is no doubt in control of the many voices that populate this collection, but those voices are rarely in control of themselves. They maintain relationships with multiple partners simply because they can’t decide who they like best. Potentially life-changing questions are answered Yes or No on a whim. Women run away just to have their husbands chase after them. These characters are smart and perceptive, but they’re often victim to the decisions their hearts make for them. They act first and think later, often paying the price for their hurry.

In “Whiskey & Ribbons,” a widower named Evi slowly falls in love with her late husband Eamon’s best friend Dalton. Cross-Smith is at her best in this story, using the first-person narration to detail every shift and turn of the widower’s mind. Evi feels guilty for loving Dalton, not just because he’s so much like her late husband, but also for the reasons she desires him—sometimes as simple as wanting company or financial security:

I’ve felt confused. I’ve felt everything. There isn’t one emotion that’s been left off of the list and that’s why I’m so tired all of the time. It’s because I feel everything, all the time and too much.

Like many other stories in Every Kiss A War, “Whiskey & Ribbons” is a love story, and a good one at that. The situation is complex, but Cross-Smith is a master of creating characters like Evi who communicate emotional complexity in deceptively simple ways:

I read once that Bill Monroe said that bluegrass music “has a high lonesome sound.” The three of us left in this world without Eamon, that’s what we have. We sound like one banjo playing slowly. We sound like one fiddle playing into the wind of the Blue Grass Mountains. We sound like a sad country song that hasn’t been written yet.

I like the way Cross-Smith enters and exits stories, often using quiet or subtle moments to craft narrative, empowering a small scope with tremendous implication. Or I like when she rumbles into stories brash and brazen and full of voice, like in “Kitchen Music,” when Cecely outlines her checklist for a potential boyfriend. Like many of Cross-Smith’s characters, Cecely has a fixation on physical features and accessories:

I like boys who:
wear plaid
ride bikes
listen to Neil Young
have beards
wear hats
wear dark brown pants

Cecely admits her list is “shamelessly shallow” in the next line, but when she finds a boy at a bar that meets her qualifications, she tells her friend, “[W]e have to find out who he is and how I can date him.” This is such a confident way to start a story, so authentic and unapologetic.

“Kitchen Music,” like many of these stories, is loaded with goodness at the line level. Certainly this goes hand in hand with strong voice, but Cross-Smith is also a master of similes. One example: Cecely continues making lists, and when she’s ending her relationship with the boy at the bar, she has this beautiful moment of indecision:

I think that I need to add that to my things I will miss so much list but maybe I don’t have to miss them … [T]rying to figure that out in this moment is like trying to pick up a little piece of paper when the wind is blowing and blowing so hard. I keep bending over and I think I have it but nope it’s gone.

Elsewhere, Cross-Smith writes similes like “[h]is mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read” and “[t]he thunder arrived … gentle and spreading slow, echoing across the Skee Ball, Indiana night like a big empty stomach growling.” The book is just packed with them.

More than any collection I’ve read recently, Every Kiss A War feels very themed. There are repeating words: cigarettes, whiskey, cowboy boots, kisses, Kentucky. There are similar premises: running away, choosing between lovers, driving a lover away and not knowing way. All this is good—it gives the book distinctive flavor—but it does make me wonder if the collection might have been stronger if it had been shorter, if having so many similar voices and premises isn’t reductive in some way.

There are some things I’d like to see from Leesa Cross-Smith. I’d like to see more of what she can do in the third-person. I’d like to see her write a long story, to see how that great voice sustains. But these are my own selfish desires, and to criticize this book for how it fails to meet those desires seems downright immoral. Instead, I’ll say this: Every Kiss A War is a strong collection, a book like none other. It is a master class in voice, thriving in its own world, distinct and flawed and beautiful, filled with smoke and longing, heart-broken but still hopeful. Hopeful just because.

Every Kiss a War, by Leesa Cross-Smith. Mojave Desert, California: Mojave River Press & Review. $16.95, paper.

Justin Brouckaert’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Passages North and Hobart, among other publications. He is a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina, where he serves as fiction editor of Yemassee.

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