While Short Bus may not be a typical beach read, that’s exactly where I took this strong fiction collection by Dark Sky Magazine fiction editor Brian Allen Carr. I read this book on the shore of Lake Michigan, in the sand, in the sun, despite its lack of sunny-ness. It was that good.
Many of the stories feature characters with physical deformities or handicaps. The presence and attention to the body is stunning. Take, for instance, this paragraph from “Hot Mess”:
My cheek is against the cool tile. It’s bruised but that’ll heal. My knees are scraped, but the scabs’ll fall. My neck is warm from my brother’s breath that draws from the melted nostrils sunk back toward his skull. It’s a skull pocked with red mottled scars. Like bloody eggs left to dry in the pan.
Carr’s tight prose suits these subjects. He skillfully describes his characters’ physicality without dwelling, without indulging to the point of nausea. The narratives move with the deformities and handicaps but are not strictly defined by them. In “Hot Mess,” the brother, whose face is disfigured by the father, has a girlfriend for each day of the month, which causes tension for his younger brother, the narrator, whose sexuality is questioned at school. The story is not about the older brother’s deformity, not entirely; the plot moves alongside it.
If you read only one short story from this collection, read “Water-Filled Jugs.” It’s a fine story, unraveled in sections, about a young couple struggling near the Mexico-Texas border and the small things they do in order to survive:
A dear friend sent us the skeleton of a man. It came in a cedar box with a schematic for assembling. It stands now in the center of our home, and my wife draws upon it with crayons. She draws flowers and butterflies and smiling faces across its skull and ribs. She says the pictures will soothe the baby. The baby cries while my wife does the drawing. My wife pauses to sniff the cedar-scented skeleton. She takes its hands into her hands.
The simplicity of the actions in this story break down the complication of the relationship, sift the layers into concise parts: the skeleton, the ice cream cart, the dry wall, fetching water. Absolutely beautiful.
Carr’s writing fits his subjects—reserved, blossoming in the economy of words. Short Bus is a brilliantly crafted collection, one worth taking to the beach.