The Roadkill Collection
By Jon Sindell
Big Table Publishing, 2014
107 pages, $14
Reviewed by Townsend Walker
With a book of little over one hundred pages there might be the temptation to sit down and read all the stories at one go. Resist that temptation. Read it as you would read poetry. Slowly, one at a time, taking the time to roll the story around in your head, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for a day. You’ll want to do it that way because the stories are not pretty, as the title suggests. Roadkill? Who wants to be informed by situations and people to be found in this kind of collection? You’ve got Mud Boy and Blood Boy in the first tale. A Mad Dad and a Roadkill Collector. Olga, a shop clerk, “much too thin and her cheeks were drawn, and her ice-blue eyes dominated her face.” It is a tribute to the author that you will care about these people, or most of them. People caught in the crevices of life, struggling to find a way to level ground, just living or trying to, some dying, but most, in between. In this respect and in others, Sindell reminds the reader of Raymond Carver and his stories about people and situations you’d only like to read about, but would avoid on the street. Not necessarily dysfunctional, but not functional either. People who get into situations you know you’d avoid, you think you’d avoid: a German baiting a couple of Russians at a baseball game in Cincinnati, a booze-fueled brawl watching a football game. A fair number of the stories feature disputes exacerbated by ethnicity, causing the reader to sit back, wonder if it is necessary, generally concluding, “that’s the way it is out there.”
The cover holds a clue. In the foreground, a stuffed baby’s bunny, a crooked smile on its face, dressed in a blue and white striped shirt and pale blue overalls, lying, limbs akimbo, in the middle of the road. There may be tire marks on the bunny’s legs. In the background, the rear end of a dark gray car running away down a suburban street. Edgy, with tenderness.
The author has a lovely talent for dropping the reader into lives and situations and ending with a touch of humanity. In “The Dirtbag at the Gym” the photo of a poor middle-aged gym rat is posted by another member on Facebook, accompanied by disparaging comments. His daughter calls from college with the news. He doesn’t hear her alarm. “That’s cool, Hon!” he bellows, and smiles at her picture.” The counterpoise is delicious. The gym rat doesn’t get it, probably never will and somehow that soothes the sting. And in “The Short Happy Life of J. Alfred Macomber,” one of the things he will not regret is “letting a banana slug rest on my cheek like a good friend.” Think of that image for a while.
And in the same story the poetry of:
Plunging my gaze up into a cold black sky of ten-thousand stars.
Lying under those stars.
Dying under them.
The prose is sharp, quick and to the point in all of the stories and is nicely expressive of the characters. A small quibble is that too many of the people in these tales sound the same. They have the same education, probably grew up in the same place. And much of the prose is staccato style, fitting for flash fiction, but a change would have been welcome.
In terms of this collection of stories, it might have benefitted from more thematic organization: stories about fathers, stories about sons, about relationships. Because the pieces are short, the subject matter and the point of view mixed, and because it is natural that people will read more than one or two at a sitting, the tales sometimes bleed into one another. But having said that, Sindell’s story construction is very strong. He grabs you by the throat with first lines like: “My funeral was literally out of the box.” And “Relax, hon,” drawls the driving instructor. “If you die, I die.” And “The walker did not wish to die.” And “Coulda happened to you ‘cause it happened to me. A loyal, red-blooded American man.” Then settles in, even if for only a couple of paragraphs to let you know the setting, characters and plot. And then, generally, gently, shows the humanity of the situation.