- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

When writers are confronted by difficulties and severity, some plunge in and dare the reader to follow, while others create diversions through humor, irony or other literary devices. Though such tough tales are not for everyone, they make for gripping and engrossing reading. This month new collections by three young writers make the point.

“She stared at her toes, the cracks and toenails defined by thin lines of red dirt. The weeds around her had brown spots, moving, twirling, brown spots. Bile lurched in her throat. They were not worms. Cockroaches, she thought. They looked like the shiny backs of red and brown cockroaches hanging from the weeds and twirling toward her …”

As you read this passage, did you notice having any physical reactions? Did you scrunch your eyebrows or grimace? While other writers excel at conjuring up the workings of the mind or heart, Ann Cummins is a master of the visceral. Most of the 13 stories in Red Ant House (Houghton Mifflin, $12, 192 pages), a debut collection, have this creepy, skin-crawling feel to them, often accompanied by a compelling sense of dread or foreboding.

Whether they are insects or humans, characters here are often slimy, mangy and undomesticated. In “the hypnotist’s trailer,” a perverted, has-been magician has eyes that are “pupilless pools of pain, dank, sludgy bogs oozing tears.”

Ms. Cummins writes largely about unpalatable people in unpleasant places. Set in the Southwest, amidst uranium mills, neglected reservations, and small towns spanning the past 100 yerars, the stories include villains and innocents, but the former are not omnipotent and the latter are not entirely guileless. Overall these stories emanate suspense, inspiring page-turning tension that nudges the reader from one tale to the next.

Imagine a little village in Greece nestled in a valley close to the Mediterranean. Populated by hardy folk with houses “small and white as dice,” nothing seems more idyllic. Come closer, and in Little Infamies (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $24, 281 pages), the impressive debut of Panos Karnezis, one finds a different reality. The young Greek engineer and writer resurrects the harsh Greek countryside of the 1950s and early ‘60s through ironic humor.

One is treated to a rich cast of characters cast in vivid yet unaffected prose. Some are regulars, such as the hypocritical but well-intentioned Father Gerasimos, good-hearted Dr. Panteleon, lonely Whale, who owns the cafe, unmarried Stella, the proprietor of the pension, and the coarse barber, who cannot find a bride.

Together, the villagers represent a rural microcosm of humanity, capable of extreme cruelty, stupidity and indifference, as well as honor, dignity and resolve. Justice and revenge feature prominently in their lives, with grisly results in “The Day of the Beast,” “Medical Ethics,” and “The Sins of the Harvest God.” While each of the 19 stories can be read individually, they form a larger, chronological narrative. Often, a strand of a plot is developed over multiple tales.

Mr. Karnezis tempers his tough stories with hilarious dialogue and absurd scenes. In “Jeremiad,” a 65-year-old bachelor peacefully passes away from exhaustion while seated at the county pension office. We spend the day with him and the other retirees patiently waiting their turn at the counter. None realize that something is amiss.

Among the retireees is a woman who, “encouraged by his honest smile, talked about the living and dead members of her family tree, which goes back seven generations to a lady-in-waiting of the first German queen.” After an hour she declares, “You’re the best listener I’ve ever come across.” Opposite Mr. Jeremias is a general who passes time carving a mermaid relief on his wooden leg. He perks up when the discussion turns to death. “‘I believe we come back as flies for three reasons,’ he said. ‘First, there are enough for there to be one for every soul on Earth since the beginning of time. Second, aren’t they often flying around corpses? And third, they like living in houses — old habits die hard.’”

John McManus’ Born on a Train (Picador, $14, 272 pages) is like a wallop to the stomach, actually 13 of them, one for each of the stories in the author’s second collection. The youngest recipient of the Whiting Writers Award, he has produced an unrelenting series, inhabited by ne’er-do-well, cursing, straight and closeted gay people, set mainly in the mountainous realms of the Southeast. Children are the only ray of light, but for the most part, they are neglected, motherless or both. Some are on the brink of becoming adults like those who have raised them.

In a number of stories, the author adeptly explores the process by which this transformation takes place, often zeroing in on the turning points that may push the children to similar fates. In “Dog’s Egg,” seven-year-old Issac, whose mother has died, lives in a trailer with Jearold, his stoned, drunken father. Although harboring deep animosity, the boy tries his best to be close to him. “But Jearold had eyes, and Issac liked them; they looked like his own. They could do more things. He’d teach his eyes to do what Jearold’s did. It was important to be tough. He’d ask his father to shoot him with the BB gun so he could know.”

In “Eastbound,” two elderly sisters are stranded in their broken down car on a narrow emergency lane, inches away from rumbling vehicles on a busy bypass. Through the diabetic hallucinations of one of the sisters, readers relive a bygone era in which the countryside was innocent, yet to experience the onslaught of concrete and asphalt.

The explosive, isolated mountain family in “The Earl of Crediton,” could well be on the endangered species list. In a very serious collection, this story is darkly funny. An outing to K-Mart results in the whole family being thrown out after the patriarch, who believes he is royalty (“rulty”), attempts to exchange a ragged pair of jeans.

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer.

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