Every Kiss A War
By Leesa Cross-Smith
Mojave River Press, 2014
149 pages, $8.99
Reviewed by Fred Pelzer
This is a great book. That needs to be said, plainly and from the start, because Every Kiss a War doesn’t necessarily demand this praise in the way that so many purposefully showy books do. You know the type, so concerned with proving how smart the author is with its innovative daring that it forgets the part where it’s supposed to tell a good story.
Leesa-Cross Smith doesn’t have time for that kind of nonsense. Over the course of its 27 stories, Every Kiss a War is far too busy providing us achingly human people engaged in that most familiar of follies, falling in and out of love. Cross-Smith has said in interviews that her focus in writing the pieces started with character, and it shows. Each name that crosses the page carries with it the weight of a life lived, of successes and mistakes, of contradictions and messiness and an existence beyond the narrow scope of this particular story. And Cross-Smith makes it seem effortless every time.
But don’t let the praise for the characters seem like the prose doesn’t back-it up. Cross-Smith has that gift for perfectly describing something you’ve experienced a thousand times in a completely new way. She lingers especially on the senses, grounding the reader in the experience of being there, body against body, straining to be ever closer. For one paramour, “His mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read.” In “Sometimes We Both Fight in Wars,” from which the collection gets its title, the narrator tries and tries to connect with her soldier boyfriend whenever he’s home on leave. Towards the end, her frustration with the situation builds and builds until we get the following stunner of a passage:
I am the water holding up the house. Sometimes we’re not even humans, we’re fucking animals—rubbing noses and sniffing each other. Sometimes we take bloody knives, carve our initials into thick, tall trees that haven’t been planted yet. His heart is a heavy, loaded gun he hands over to me, lets me spin on my finger. Wait don’t shoot.
Perhaps this deeply humanistic approach isn’t for everyone. There’s little of the sort of irony that you often find in the writing descendants of Raymond Carver, all aesthetic detachment from men destroying themselves and women clinging on for the ride. Cross-Smith isn’t afraid to remind the reader why it is that people fall in love in the first place, some strange chemistry of sex and attraction and personality that come together to override every other logical nerve in the body.
A few sets of interconnected stories are scattered throughout, and often stand as some of the strongest parts of the collection. As great as each piece’s portrait of its characters is, the benefit of being able to return to the characters months or years later and see how they’ve changed, how they’ve stayed the same, add innumerable layers to the pleasure of spending time with these people.
The best example of this is the trifecta of “What the Fireworks Are For”, “Hold On, Hold On”, and “Cheap Beer & Sparklers”. Over the course of the three stories Violet, the narrator, slowly leaves her husband Dominic for reasons she doesn’t truly understand to pursue the baseball player Roscoe. But while the plot seems simple, each story does a fantastic job of inhabiting the conflicted feelings of Violet as she falls in love with a new man while still loving the first. This ambivalence fills the set of tales, such as this devastating finisher for the end of “Fireworks”: “I searched the radio for songs about how it ached in the same place whether you were leaving or heading home. How sometimes your body couldn’t tell the difference between not loving someone enough and loving someone too much.”
There is nothing clean about it, which is how you know that these are people and not just pawns being moved around by the author. Even more impressive, each story manages the incredible feat of standing on its own and simultaneously building on one another for greater depth and nuance of character.
Not every piece nails the landing. “A Modest Guide to Truculence/Survival: Girls” is one of the more experimentally formatted pieces, set up as a series of small bits of wisdom talking their way around some truth of the narrator’s life, and ultimately clevers its way out of having a firm grip on story. A few of the very short pieces try to cover too much ground and character in their page or less length. “Making Cowboys”, meanwhile, has the opposite problem, and lingers too long in too slight of a story about divorcees coming together. But that’s such a small portion of misfires in the whole set that it will seem negligible by the end. Even more impressive, Cross-Smith didn’t build the collection slowly, over time, accumulating successful stories until there were enough to publish, as most authors do. Instead she decided that she was going to write a collection’s worth of stories, and then did so. There isn’t much else you need to know to prove the massive talent that Cross-Smith wields.
This is a collection you’ll want to return to again, to wonder at its seamless architecture and effortless beauty. To watch again as these characters fall in love and make mistakes and hurt but not know why. You’ll return because it won’t feel like you’re reading stories, just hearing about other people’s lives, and it’s hard to think of a better use of your time.