Jan 10, 2012

Monkey droppings - Every Shallow Cut by Tom Piccirilli: "You're going to hurt yourself or someone else very badly."

Today, the monkey swings in on a vine of happiness, and swings back out on a rope festooned with hooks and blades.

So, ouch. Be careful, everyone. This one is going to leave scars.

Every Shallow Cut (ChiZine, 2011)
by Tom Piccirilli
They opened the car door and Churchill hit the ground beside me with a thirty-five pound belly-flop. Our gazes met and he gave me such a look of confusion and unconditional love that a sob welled in my chest and nearly broke from my throat. He snuffled at my neck and licked me twice and they went for the keys in my pocket and Churchill went for their ankles.

I had a flash, almost a premonition, where I saw that here it was, my very worst moment in a long chain of very worst moments, where I was going to have to watch them kick my dog to death. It was worse than my wife leaving me, it was worse than losing the house, it was worse than visiting the graves of my parents. It was going to be nearly as bad as the day I’d passed wailing protesters at Planned Parenthood following my wife’s staunch shoulders across the lot. They’d break Churchill’s back, boot him into the gutter, dance off with my father’s coins, and drive away in my car.

Church growled and hung onto an ankle, and the guy tried to shake him and bitched, “Fucking fat dog piece of shit!” His partners found it funny and started to laugh. I got to my knees and then to my feet, and I remembered that I was a man with nothing left who wrote stories about men with nothing left who did ungodly acts of violence against each other.

I wrote from the safety of a desk but the dark cellar door of my failures had opened and called me through it, and I found all my urgent whispering pain and hate, and I laughed again and they turned to look at me and I went to work.
Every Shallow Cut was released in 2011, but I didn't get to crack open its cover until one dreary day early in 2012. The next few hours were a blur, and when I closed the covers again, I knew I had just experienced something very special.

Brutal, yes. Violent, sometimes. Unforgiving, oh yes, and spilling over with despair. It may be one of the finest literary recreations of depression I've come across. As the title implies, every sentence is a razor, every word a shearing of flesh from meat. Every Shallow Cut is a nightmare of urban angst, the terror of losing everything to faceless banks and sneering creditors. At its essence, in its tone and style, it reminds me of nothing so much as the brilliantly unsentimental work of Jim Thompson (an author who knew his way around insanity).

But is it special? With a capital S. If I'd read it three days sooner, it would have been in my top reads of 2011.

The nameless narrator is a crime writer, once one of some renown, as references to critical acclaim and awards fill the scant exposition. Time has not been kind, and he is now down to his last dollar, with his wife gone, his career in shambles, his house repossessed, and him living in his car with his faithful bulldog Churchill. He is truly living out the death by a thousand cuts,and if this story is at all biographical, we're lucky not to be reading about Piccirilli on the front pages of the tabloids, or the imprinting of a headstone.

Piccirilli begins his saga at the lowest of low points, finding his hero being gleefully stomped by hooligans outside a pawn shop. But if luck has fled his life, resourcefulness hasn't, and after dispatching with the hoods he sells the last of his belongings, purchases a gun, and heads out on the road to...

To where? That's the fun (if we can call it that), as Piccirilli keeps taking left turns. The cover and bumpf led me to believe that this was an ultraviolent Natural Born Killers scenario, a man pushed too far, Death Wish in a car, that sort of thing. And I would have been fine and dandy with that, I love a revenge fantasy as much as everyone, and the author plainly has the chops to make that work; his prose is stripped of elegance and refinement, so unadorned it makes Elmore Leonard seem like a crafter of purple prose. But Piccirilli — an author I am unfamiliar with, an oversight I will definitely rectify — elegantly crafts his story into an examination of despair. It becomes a modern-day retelling of the Job myth, although God finally eased up on the pains with Job. Piccirilli is not so kind as to offer a way out.

Every Shallow Cut keeps the reader eternally on edge. There are no names to these characters save Churchill, no signposts to help the reader keep his balance. The narrator has no connection to the people he meets along the way. They are only "my brother," "my agent," "my pal." Only Churchill reaches through the emotional vacuum and makes a connection. He cannot even connect with his writing, as he compulsively fills notebooks with a story his pal calls his best, yet he has no memory of writing. As he goes from person to person, the elements of himself are sliced off as fat off a roast, leaving only a nub of gristle and bone to take the reader into that darkest of dark places. The last few pages are as bleak, suspenseful, and swimming with misery as any I've read.

But I fear I've scared you off. And maybe that's for the best. The thrills of Every Shallow Cut are not those that can be easily shaken off. These are not funhouse horrors; this is the sickening vortex of mental collapse, a slurry of paranoia, self-pity, unfocused rage, and unremitting sadness. I'm almost afraid to read more Piccirilli; not because of the terrors I'm sure he can conjure, but because I don't know if he could ever top this. I hope he tries, though.


P.S. This is another substantially amazing release from ChiZine, a Canadian publisher who has made a deal with Satan to produce the greatest genre fiction out there today. If you haven't read ChiZine yet, you haven't lived.

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