This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Jordan Harper’s first collection of short stories, Love and Other Wounds, might be the most brutal collection of short fiction I’ve ever read. Fast, unrelenting, and brief, the book is a punch to the gut for conventionally published short fiction and the modern crime genre. Along with Colin Winnette’s Haints Stay it represents a new direction for classic, conventionally masculine American genres like the western, the noir, the prison story. Harper and Winnette take these staid genres and reinvigorate them as punk rock / thug anthems.
Harper’s background is in television, both as a writer and producer, and there is a clear cinematic sensibility to the fifteen slim stories in Love and Other Wounds. There is no slow character development, no contemplative scenes staring out windows while the protagonist’s inner monologue walks us through what we’re supposed to feel and think on their behalf. Conflict–generally of the violent variety–kicks off immediately in each story, sometimes in the first sentence. These tales are not pretty. They are bloody, remorseless, cynical, and bleak. Hope shines in through the holes the blood doesn’t clog, but those aren’t many.
“I locked eyes with him. First there was fear and then there was pain and then there was knowing and then there was nothing. I wiped the blade on his shirt as I stood” – from I Wish They Never Named Him Mad Dog, page 46
Given the cinematic texture of these stories, it might do best to provide cinematic touchstones in describing them. Harper hales from Missouri, and many of these stories are set in the meth-addled hills, woods, and bars of the Ozarks. The easiest starting point then might be the brief filmography of Debra Granik, especially her 2011 modern masterpiece of low-budget noir Winter’s Bone. Add to that Quentin Tarantino’s masculine POV, mischievous visual chortling, and occasionally questionable use of racism as a narrative device. Finally, throw in some of the open spaces, road-bound weariness, and cheap whiskey-and-cigarette heroics of Sam Peckinpah’s bigger films, and you have some sense of the filmic pedigree of Harper’s fiction.
These stories are exclusively centered around crime and criminals. In some cases the crime is overt to the narrative–drug deals, revenge murders, dog fighting. In some cases it provides a background to the actions of the characters, as in Ad Hominem Attack, or I Refute It Thus, in which the main character, and ex-con, pays out poetic justice to a pretentious hipster philosopher who needs some clarification on what is real and what is not. In some stories, legal crimes are secondary to crimes of honor or ethics – as when a convicted murderer is taken down by his fellow cons for killing a kid, or when a grandfather seeks to exact payment from his granddaughter’s acquitted rapist. Many of these characters are despicable–white supremacists, dog fight trainers–but the trap door acceleration of these stories’ dropkick beginnings slams us into the urgency of situations so suddenly that we don’t have time to decide–or care–if these people are likable or not. We don’t think about that till after, and think about it we do.
I confess to being a bit uncomfortable with how much I enjoyed this book, mostly because there is a certain brand of American male–I picture them watching UFC and failing to get the ironic subtext of Fight Club while still having its poster on their wall anyway–who wouldn’t feel at all uncomfortable reading this book and would just think it was a badass, manly bunch of stories that “tell it like it is.” This may indeed be how “it is” in parts of America and for certain people, but appreciating these stories requires recognizing that that’s not really a good thing. A better world would be one without dogfighting, racism, diesel-injected hypermasculinity, domestic violence, and a bunch of other vices that saturate these pages. Jordan Harper knows that. Responsible readers of this book know that. But not all readers are responsible. I really liked Love and Other Wounds, but because of disgusting things that real people sometimes do, I didn’t always like that I liked it. That’s probably my problem and not Harper’s.
Love and Other Wounds is an injection of adrenaline to a genre that can too often be formulaic and tired. More accurately, an injection of adrenaline right after some brute has swung a shovel at your face and you have to start running or grab a shovel of your own. These stories are ragged-breathed and broken-toothed anthems to the uniquely American archetype of the illiterate vigilante, the rural demigod, the rebel poet.
Perhaps my favorite story in the book is the outlier, the piece least of a theme with the others. Prove It All Night is very short–six pages–and tells the story of two young adults on a night ride crime spree. They are in love, or in love with the idea of being so, or high enough on adrenaline and nicotine to blur the two. They rob gas stations and make love while hurtling down the dark highway and get high on pointing guns at shopkeepers for cash they have no stated plans for. Something goes wrong. Told from the viewpoint of the seventeen year old female partner, the story is the most tender of the bunch, and perhaps the most optimistic about the possibilities of the human spirit, despite its dire ending. After the events of that night conclude, our narrator tells us this shortly before the end:
“After that there’s not much to tell you. My life has gone the way it was supposed to go. I work in an office. I married a good enough man with a job and scared eyes and we never went bust and we never went boom. Yesterday I watched my mother, hollowed out, with tubes jammed in her and thousand-dollar pills that could keep her just on this side of the shadow for another week, and on the ride home my husband and I held hands and I told him don’t you ever let that be me. And he lied to me and told me he wouldn’t and I lied to him and told him the same.” – from Prove It All Night, page 20-21
This acquiescence to the safe boredom of anesthetized adulthood is followed by a brief whispering of wistful regret for former misguided but alert passion, and that is the book’s biggest nod to the human spirit. Love and Other Wounds won’t be for everyone, but it’s one hell of a ride.