Fiction carries the day in Saw Palm 12, and the editors begin the issue with the genre via John Brandon’s smooth and seemingly unassuming “Hillsborough County Crime Report.” This was my first encounter with Brandon’s work—a fiction writer out of Florida who’s published almost exclusively through McSweeney’s. His story invites the reader into a side of Florida life captured often in film: the apparent world of organized crime. In this tale we meet The Driver and a chatty New Guy who was recently released from prison and is assigned to work with The Driver to tail a Subject.
I say apparent above because Brandon lets the scene inform the mood, and he never explicitly says what his characters are about. We feel we’ve “been here before,” “seen this before,” “read this before.” The world is as cozy and familiar as it is unassumingly creepy: without having to write the words, Brandon’s characters come across as seedy, desperate, detached.
It’s easy to feel robbed by such a style—it can seem aloof and lazy when writing depends on motif. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize Brandon’s apparent aloofness leaves us wondering what the future will bring for these characters, just as these characters are wondering this for themselves. There’s a vacancy and hopelessness to the style that quite nicely illustrates the same attributes apparent in the characters. The New Guy is moving up fast in the organization but is jumpy and worried about how his recent prison stint will affect his “career.” The Driver is wondering how the New Guy is moving up so quickly, even as he reminisces about his past partner who has taken ill and is dying slowly to an autoimmune disorder in hospice. The Driver, steely and removed, appears in a visit with his previous partner quite helpless and inept. It’s an effective reveal.
And so, on the story goes, drifting listlessly until it runs aground on a surprise ending I did not quite see coming and before which Brandon effects some genuinely profound ruminations about the psyches of men like these. Good stuff. The issue is worth picking up just for this story.
While fiction may carry the day in Saw Palm 12, poetry is well represented. The best of it is from Denise Duhamel’s pen, the editors running two poems by her as a sort of hinge to the issue, falling almost exactly in the middle. Her “Miami,” in full:
I take a seat and wait
for the Russian tailor
who is pinning the dress pants
of a man who also wears a Red Sox tee shirt.
I hold my bag in my lap, two skirts
from the Caribbean boutique
that need to be hemmed.
It’s the morning of April 19, 2013.
One suspect dead, Watertown, MA
on lockdown. What are you going
to do? Nikki sighs. Exactly.
What are you going to do?
says the man, who needs the slacks
fast. For el funeral de su hermano.
This is another familiar Florida: the Florida seen through the lens of the Northeast, from where the snowbirds fly. Also, the international Florida: the Cuban-Latino Florida, the Russian Florida. (Yes, there are Russians there.) The pan-American Florida where our hopes for a better, sunnier life almost come to fruition but can’t quite tamp down the darkness of the outside world.
Beyond Brandon and Duhamel there is the sound, genre-bending contribution by Kyle Minor “Answers to Your Questions About Florida,” a numbered litany of memories that shocks and builds up quite a confessional expose. The issue is anchored by a collection of compelling artwork. Canshu Gran’s “Fruitcake,” a glossy, surreal, confection-esque rendering of a gender-ambiguous clown begins the images and is lovely. Also quite striking: Christy Lorio’s “Weeki Watchee Pool,” a shot down through water of what appear to be mangrove roots, the scene captured in what appears to be nearly midday sun. The effect is lunar—or maybe Martian a la Ray Bradbury—and surprising. There are other inspiring images.
All these positives aside, there are several detractors that hold this issue back. Namely, typos and inconsistent header formatting. It is a shame to see such mistakes in an otherwise engaging product.
Final verdict? If I were a Floridian, I would probably seek this publication out on the regular, though as a general reader, I don’t know that the issue would make it home to my bookshelf. As a writer, were I to have a Florida-inspired submission on hand, I would surely consider this journal.