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Breaking It Down

Rusty Barnes’s Breaking It Down collects nearly twenty flash fictions into an attractive, pocket-size book, a rare instance where the size of the book accurately depicts the size of the stories. Luckily, it is only the page counts of the stories that are small, as the themes and characters contained within each tale loom larger than life, like the low-class tall tales they are.

Rusty Barnes’s Breaking It Down collects nearly twenty flash fictions into an attractive, pocket-size book, a rare instance where the size of the book accurately depicts the size of the stories. Luckily, it is only the page counts of the stories that are small, as the themes and characters contained within each tale loom larger than life, like the low-class tall tales they are.

Standout stories include “Gross Imperfections,” about a group of grocery store workers all in love with the same female customer, and “Pretty,” about a woman who turns an unwanted BDSM session into a chance to assert herself, to hurt someone else the way she’s been hurt.

The men and women who populate Barnes’s stories are frequently on the down and out, often chafing at the blue collar luck and sexual deviancies that are all they have left after other, better lives passed them by. Which is not to say these characters are victims, or at least not merely so. Instead, most are dynamic and willing to lock horns with the world around them. On the other side of their complaints lies action, as in “Class,” where an unnamed narrator attempts to smile through the torturous life left behind when his wife marries his next door neighbor. The narrator sees a kindred spirit in his tormented mastiff/pit bull mix, Spud:

Pay careful attention as Spud lunges to the end of the logging chain you’ve bolted to the side of your garage and connected as well to a railroad tie driven three feet into the soft loam of your backyard. Imagine Spud slavering at them, running to the end of the brown dirt circle of lawn his incessant pacing has claimed for his own, rimmed with grand piles of week-old shit and the remnants of chewed plastic bowls and battered iron ones.

The second person narration is a cattle prod of words meant to stir up the reader, goading him into cheering the narrator on as he charges into the house of his former wife with his fingers wrapped around a loaded shotgun and Spud on a woefully insufficient leash. This is how Barnes operates over and over again. With stories too short to allow the reader’s first reactions of moral superiority or indignation to surface, Breaking It Down instead offers raw characters rendered quickly and delivered with the visceral jolt of a bar fight, of a pickup truck tryst, of a car crash that happens every five pages. There is plenty of wreckage along the way, and many of his characters do get irreversibly injured, but there are also those who emerge as strong survivors, forged anew in the trailer park crucibles of their lives.

As the editor of Night Train, Rusty Barnes has championed flash fiction for over five years now, and his own book is as fine an affirmation of the form’s potential as any other. Breaking It Down is a promising debut, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who considers themselves a fan of flash fiction.

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