Saturday, August 3, 2019

Chess pieces sculpted out of highly polished black marble

Salt Water and other short stories by Sef Hughes My rating: 5 of 5 stars  /// In this dark collection, we have a reader’s late-night buffet of provocative stories concocted and served by a writer who has a unique mind and—for my money—a brilliant one. Certainly, his brilliance is a dark brilliance, but there are many veins of humor and humanity running through that darkness, tempering it. I’d describe this collection as a group of chess pieces sculpted out of highly polished black marble.

We begin with a portrait of a woman—more or less ordinary at first glance—as depicted by her neglected daughter, beginning in broad strokes, and then, as the pages quickly flip to the left, in finer and finer detail. In Mother Dear, we meet Mom, a human spider. Mom weaves a web for her clueless victim, spinning it from the substance of their tragic circumstances, and when, at last, the ensnared one comes to believe it is hopeless to try to escape her sickening kindness, her outlandish, disproportionate generosity, her suffocating largesse, Mom slowly lowers herself down, inch by inch, for the kill-with-kindness kill. And smiles beneficently. The author paints his incisive portrait with one insightful stroke after another, until the enigmatic final page.

The story that follows in Mom’s shadow, Tap Tap, was so startling to me, I read it three times in rapid succession. It's compact enough to do that—the author knows how to trim fat as he dissects his beast, so there's not an extra word to be found from start to finish. A man who is blatantly oblivious to his wife, his colleagues, his neighbors, his friends, and all else, pursues his obsession, which is dismissed by all as a mere hobby. And what might that hobby be? You won’t believe it when you read it. Taking a cue from the author’s practiced economy, the less said by me, a mere auditor, the better.

Once a  Civil Servant is the type of story that I classify as a "Two Shoe"—a storytelling template perfected by the late Roald Dahl. It’s a tale with an unpleasant twist that a reader will see coming from the get-go. When that happens, an alarm goes off in the reader's mind: Hold on, it's too soon to guess the outcome! That's the first shoe. It drops when you realize that the narrator is capable of anything, and that realization comes (at least for me) at the end of the fourth paragraph with these words: "I know how to cheat death." From that point, I was intrigued to see if I had guessed the outcome correctly. I had. The author intended that. Because there was a second shoe to fall. It does.

We have many more diversions of varying lengths, making up a total of eleven. A particularly good one, rendered in dialogue only, concerns a pair of not-too-bright career criminals arranging a lethal escapade—an especially delightful twist caps this one off perfectly—the story ends with a humorous bang, something like a gunshot crossed with a popping champagne cork. The concluding voyage fantastique—the second in the book to touch upon the subject of “invisibility”—was deliciously engaging. It has a labyrinthian plot so well-constructed, every turn of events is another blind alley leading to delight and surprise. One really finds himself at the author’s mercy in this one, but that’s what makes great storytelling.

A book of shorts as accomplished as this (his first, too) gets my highest recommendation. There are at least two stories in this collection that could have/would have/should have won a competition prize. If you want to know which ones, read them and decide for yourself.


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