Where Alligators Sleep
by Sheldon Lee Compton
Foxhead Books, 2014
Reviewed by Sam Slaughter
I’m no mathematician. Hell, after I scraped by in high school Algebra II, I barely look at numbers that weren’t alcohol by volume ratings until I was forced to grapple with quantitative reasoning as a college junior. Now, though, since reading Sheldon Lee Compton’s newest collection of flash fiction stories Where Alligators Sleep, I’m thinking about getting back into this numbers game.
Maybe not numbers, necessarily, but at least one number—the Power Per Page Dynamic. I just made it up, but go with it. In sixty-seven pieces, Compton assails the reader in the best way possible. Page after page, you are hit with emotional force that would usually be strung out across many more pages. Instead, Compton has written a collection with persistent emotional percussion. They payoffs come fast and often here, as the stories fly by.
If it were possible to figure out some sort of percentage or point-based scale for such a payoff—and it may very well be for those skilled in such things—that would be the type of number I’d want to study. Anything mathematical still over my head, though, it was easy to sit back and simply enjoy the consistently strong stories.
When I think of stories, I think of the moments that can indelibly change the characters of said story. Compton, here, manages to zero in on precisely those moments, leaving the messiness of the before and after to the reader. The last story in the collection, “Phantom Limb” does so perfectly. The last line of this six-sentence piece reads, “This was my brother’s bike, and now it is mine.” In this Compton encapsulates everything that has happened in this family’s life. Earlier in the story (earlier seems an odd choice here, seeing as there are only two paragraphs, but alas) you see the bike being worked on by the siblings. Then before you can even exhale, the story is over and a brother has inherited the bike.
With so many strong emotional moments one after another, Alligators can be thought of as rumble strip fiction, where seemingly every moment is a new bump, a new jarring experience to contend with in an effort to get to wherever you’re going. After riding those bumps for a while, though, you are almost lulled by them. They are soothing and pleasing. These stories, when read continuously, have much the same effect. By the time you get to the end, you just want to keep riding for the feeling it gives you.
Those that read short fiction may at first be turned off by these stories. Flash fiction, by nature, is in and out and done. Details tend to be selective and leave—depending on the author—a good amount to the imagination. White space functions just as importantly as the words on the page, propagating Hemingway’s thoughts on using words sparingly. For all their brevity, the stories in Alligators are anything but spare. In sometimes just a few simple sentences, Compton is able to scratch out the innermost being of a person and present it for all to see. In the title story, we’re given almost everything we need to know from the opening lines, “The husband and wife had been side by side in the whiskey light of the room for years. In the first two or three months, they would whisper to one another, imagining they were dancing on a wooden floor years earlier” (19). This setup immediately pulls the reader behind a burnt sienna lens of times long past.
In brevity, Compton’s work blazes hot with the energy many writers strive to get across. With shifts in media distribution and online journals becoming more and more prevalent, flash fiction is quickly finding a solid foothold in the literary world. Sheldon Lee Compton’s Where Alligators Sleep is an excellent showing of the potential of the short and the powerful.