Jackie Corley’s debut story collection, The Suburban Swindle, features a blurb that says, “Stories like poetry made from the gritty stuff of hard scrabble life.” It’s not often that a book blurb is all that honest or accurate. Hyperbolized and syrupy? Yes, almost always. But capturing the essence of the book in a line or two is indeed rare, and refreshing. This blurb definitely captures the essence. Corley’s characters do live hard, gritty lives. They live in a perpetual moment where things are always about to ignite, or burn out, or both – relationships are going to end, friends and lovers are going to leave – giving each story the sense that it takes place on the edge of a cliff.
If I had to choose a representative sentence that distills this collection into one taut line, it would be from the opening story, “Blood in Jersey”: “What this is is Jersey. This is fear so thick and buried under, you pretend you’re not on fire.” The Suburban Swindle is full of fire: passion, desire, tribulation. These characters’ hard lives are just the everyday for them (not to say easy, by any stretch), and this fire, while maybe not necessarily purifying, is certainly doing the simultaneous work of softening and tempering.
Trachtenberg stares at her shadowed profile with his eyes bulging. On his skinny, acne-riddled face, the wide expression looks fierce, almost violent and repulsive. It’s a trick, a cheap lie. Whatever fast, thin-man’s fury his face seems to betray is a mask for all the clean, quiet kindness he carries with him.
In the titular story, “The Suburban Swindle,” the main character is home visiting from college and hanging out with her younger brother, who is teetering on the edge of young manhood. She is afraid of “losing him” to “all that quiet violence and sadness building up to something solid and bitter inside of him.” But, of course, no matter how much she explains, she is powerless to make him understand things he must learn on his own. He has to go through the fire, learn for himself, and, hopefully, survive.
Corley has a superlative ear for the music of language. Her lines and rhythms are rich, lyrical, and energetic, carrying the reader along and juxtaposing interestingly with the tension in the stories themselves, reflecting the tension within the characters, between the hard façade and the longing lonely vulnerability behind it. For example, this paragraph from “The Suburban Swindle”:
. . . what I can do for me, I can run roughshod through my past and connect the dots with all the broken boys I’ve seen crawl. The bored, drippy-eyed potheads in basements, anesthetizing their gods’ minds. The drunk fighters, cut through and burning, licking livewire wounds and then pretending they’re numb. The walking egos, all assholes for mouths, holding cigarettes for Goth chicks and whores, for users who’ll fuck them. Or minor men like the uncle who walk through life straight, and kill themselves when they turn invisible.
Jackie Corley’s The Suburban Swindle is an impressive debut that calls to mind Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a collection of gritty, hard-life stories that are also poetry in the form of fiction. Jackie Corley’s writing captures and conveys the impassable conflict of being human at every level.