An adult son abandons his paralyzed father for a splash of Old Crow. A young widower, self-medicating with a stream of drinks, crafts macabre stuffed rabbits for his autistic son. A businessman goes to Key West for a work meeting and, after a wave of several cocktails, tastes the wondrous and insane glory of his father’s profession—a sideshow glass eater. In God in Neon by Sam Slaughter, lives are drowned in beer, whiskey, vodka, and gin, each person poisoned not only by the toxic levels of alcohol coursing through their veins, but by lives unlived and dreams unheeded.
Over a dozen stories—some coming off almost as long poems and others more in a short story vein—center on the unremarkable, everyday grind of people scratching out a barebones existence in small towns all over the United States. With a nod to Southern Gothic tone and plotlines, Slaughter conjures up a dark everyman in each of his tales until the characters bleed together in a familiar haze of someone you might have known or still do. They’re utterly believable creations—even if the descriptions aren’t always on the money—so much so that readers easily find themselves slipping into an intoxicated swirl of personal memories.
The author’s first tale, the titular “God in Neon,” sets the tone for the remainder, asking essential questions about who is more tangled in the web of addiction, the drinker or those close to them. Ford is the protagonist who cares for his father, a stroke victim bound to a wheelchair and requiring constant attention. With the book’s first line, we slide into a world where an implacable thirst commandeers the characters’ lives. “Ford could feel it coming on like a wave, like the darkness that followed the sun over the mountains.” There’s something predatory about the desire that consumes his thoughts, and virtually all the characters in the book—from shiftless dreamers to ruined old men—are portrayed as complicated victims of the same hunt.
Ford battles with his silent father, a subtle stand-in for an impotent God, who, according to Ford, does nothing to soothe his struggles.
“You always brought me to church as a kid, Pa,” Ford says to his father as he lashes the old man’s wheelchair to a door frame with bungee cords, a precaution against injury should Ford not make it back from the bar before sunrise or even midday. “Told me I needed to have faith in something … You showed me, too, that the Lord God wasn’t going to help me. If he were, why would I need this? Why wouldn’t you still be talking?”
Ford leaves his father strapped to the threshold, and while it’s easy to judge Ford’s irresponsible choices with a lip-curling disgust, his question about divine abandonment and what god we each worship hovers in the air unanswered. For Ford, as with most characters in God in Neon, he possesses a fanatical faith in the only thing that helps him forget his pain and, tragically, deepens it.
Parents and children are a common pairing throughout the collection, although fathers and sons get pride of place, adding paralyzing alcoholism to the strained dynamic so often seen where men conflate emotional distance with paternal virtue. Usually, Slaughter’s frozen family tragedies land seamlessly, but occasionally, the author chews them for us, not trusting his audience to get his more subtle points.
In “Burying the Johnboat,” a rare female-voiced tale, a drunken mother hopes to stabilize a rickety boat left in the front yard by her ex-husband, who’s also the father of her son. In a flush of vodka and beer, she buries the boat’s hull, an apt metaphor for her life, which works beautifully until Slaughter tips his hand to tell us exactly what he’s doing. “She imagined that, with every inch she obscured by dirt, one more memory would be forever covered.”
He does something similar in “Stepping on the Devil’s Tail,” where Lily is told by her doctor that if she keeps drinking she’s going to die. Defiant to the end, she gets drunk and high before heading off to the bar with the intention of setting it alight. She pours the contents of four liquor bottles over the bar’s door and then sets “the bottles down in front of the door like votive candles.” This is a woman in the midst of a holy ritual which smoothly reminds the reader of the opening themes of the book, but shortly thereafter, Slaughter takes it a step too far: “Lily took the lighter out, flicked it, and walked like an altar boy with a candle to the bar door.” Moments like these, as well as a handful of jarring similes and small editing flubs, make one feel as if they’ve suddenly switched to drinking rotgut instead of artisanal spirits.
Divided into two parts, God in Neon’s second half is tighter than the first. The stories have more room to breathe and, consequently, feel less episodic. If the first half’s protagonists are morose rejects, the second half paints a more complex picture with clearer delineation of voice between each story. One of the collection’s best is “Welcome to Milwaukee,” a first-person account where two childhood friends confront the different turns their lives have taken over several beers slugged back while watching planes from a rooftop. Dave, trapped in a family mechanic business, longs for the life his friend has—traveling almost every week to other cities for business. The narrator suddenly sees Dave’s dead-end options, so different than his own:
I saw Mueller and Son becoming Mueller and Son and Son. I saw Dave’s hands covered in oil and grime, not entirely clean until they give him one last sponge bath before embalming him. I saw the furthest place he’d ever go, a long weekend trip to a convention in Fargo. I saw everything he did when he looked up at the planes.
With lives like these, where the daily bread is stale, if not downright moldy, is it any wonder people drink? When dreams are not just deferred but conspicuously absent, how does anyone find their way out of the labyrinth of family expectation, parental disappointment, and a legacy of tragic choices? God in Neon provides no answers, but racks up another round of shots to help us all disappear into a bottle, which, like the chicken and the egg, is either the cause of our suffering or its cure.
God in Neon: Stories, by Sam Slaughter. Lucky Bastard Press, April 2016. 140 pages. $12.99, paper.
Greg Marzullo is a writer and award-winning arts critic whose work has appeared in the Washington Blade, the Phoenix New Times, Echo Magazine, and Paleo Magazine. He’s the author of Bad Yogi: A Guidebook for the Rest of Us and creator of the blog The Weekly Scourge: A News Source for Heretics. He lives in Arizona with his husband.