Friday, April 29, 2005

Nothing But Jerks by Dave Zeltserman, art by Jean-Pierre Jacquet

Nothing But Jerks”, written by Dave Zeltserman, illustrated by Jean-Pierre Jacquet, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

Lou Johnston got shot in the abdomen during a bank robbery. He survived with the help of a shady doctor, but after three weeks he still hurts. Not a nice man to begin with, the pain is making him worse. His girlfriend, Norma, who takes the brunt of his ill temper, is caring for him.

Not only is he in physical pain, Lou has some emotional pain to deal with as well. First is the fact that he is embarrassed. He tried to be a nice guy and not hurt the bank guard, and after all that consideration, the damn guard shot him anyway. Then there’s the fact that none of the guys in the gang who robbed the bank with him have come to see how he’s doing. That bothers him more than the wound.

Then Harry comes by to see him. So at least one of the gang isn’t a jerk. Maybe. After a few minutes of visiting, Harry brings up the reason he really came to see Lou. Harry’s afraid he’s in trouble with Manny, one of the local mob bosses. It seems Harry’s been skimming the money he’s been collecting for Manny. He wants Lou to talk to Manny, see what he knows, maybe smooth things out.

Lou says, sure, he’ll talk to Manny, straighten things out. Only thing is, Lou’s a little miffed. Harry didn’t come by to see how Lou was doing, he just wanted Lou to do him a favor. How should Lou handle this?

Serial art. That’s what the late Will Eisner called comics. A series of drawings that help tell a story. I’ve always felt that art can enhance the written word, and that’s what’s happened with this story. You could tell Lou Johnston is a bastard just from the writing, but the art brings the impression home. Navigation through the story is easy, but I wish it had been easier to download and print.

In short, a nice addition to the Zeltserman/Jacquet cannon. Do another one.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Inside Job by J. Mark Bertrand

The Inside Job” by J. Mark Bertrand, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

Tanner spent eight years in prison for a liquor store robbery gone wrong – at least from his viewpoint. Maybe he found religion inside or at least a moral compass. He doesn’t know, but he doesn’t want to go back. All he wants is a normal life. He met a woman, Joan, and fell in love. She doesn’t care about his background. He has a job, he has a woman, it looks like his dream of a normal life is within reach.

Then Gravel shows up. Gravel is his best friend from childhood. He was Tanner’s partner in the liquor store robbery. Gravel didn’t try to go straight when he got out. Now he’s in trouble. He owes seventy grand to some very bad people. He wants Tanner to help him make a score big enough to clear him.

If Tanner had the seventy grand he’d give it to Gravel, but he doesn’t. And he doesn’t want to go back to crime. They argue, and Tanner sends him away. Joan, who knows how close he and Gravel are, wants to know what the argument was about. Tanner tells her, and suddenly this woman of Tanner’s dreams, this 14-year employee of a bank, this citizen comes up with a plan to rob the bank where she works.

Tanner doesn’t want to do it. Joan arranges a meeting with Gravel. He and Joan try to convince Tanner to do the job. Joan even says she has the guns they will need. She tells them the routine of the bank, how many guards, the best time to hit. She also comes up with a way to force the manager to open the vault – by holding the man’s wife hostage. Finally, reluctantly Tanner agrees to do the job while Gravel holds the bank manager’s wife hostage.

But when Tanner gets to the bank, nothing is like Joan said it would be. The vault is open. There are two guards instead of one. Tanner gets away with one bag of money but not without shooting one guard and pistol-whipping another. Things get worse from there. Is there redemption waiting for him, or jail or even death?

This story reads easily and quickly. Mr. Bertrand does a good job of showing how a man with good intentions can be dragged into bad ways through relationships that make him feel obligated. And let’s not forget the femme fatale. This story could have fit right in the Dangerous Women anthology.

I have one small quibble with the sudden appearance of the prison chaplain at the end. It almost feels like deus ex machina, though there is a quick explanation of his presence. But I would have felt better if he had made a physical appearance earlier in the story.

In short, an excellent object lesson about the influence of bad company.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Venus in Transit by Chick Lang

Venus in Transit” by Chick Lang, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

A young man meets a woman in a bar. They are total opposites, but he can’t get enough of her. Leah is the dominant one, leading him around by his dick. The night they meet she picks the pocket of practically every man in the place. When they wake up the next morning, he discovers that she has picked his pocket as well. She hands him his wallet with $2,000 in it. His share of the night’s proceeds, she says.

Even though the two of them constantly fight, he can’t bring himself to break away. They stayed together for months, robbing, conning, thieving every easy mark that came along, and some not so easy. He keeps thinking he should leave her, but she dominates him totally.

Suddenly she decides she wants to rob a bank. Even though he has grown increasingly uncomfortable with their way of life, he goes along as she knew he would. She has what sounds like a good plan. He bought a disposable car that they will use for the robbery and to get them back to a place to switch to their normal car. She leaves him an envelope just before he drops her off in front of the bank. She says it is her last will and testament, just in case something goes wrong. He isn’t supposed to open it unless she doesn’t show up at the appointed time and place.

As he waits for her he has to fend off anxiety, a couple of passing vagrants and the temptation to open the envelope. Finally the time comes, and she is nowhere to be seen. He follows the plan, and heads back to switch cars. What he finds there and in the envelope Leah left him make the end consistent with what has gone before.

To be honest I almost didn’t get past the first sentence, and the next three paragraphs were a real struggle. Much too “literary” for my taste. It felt like dressing in a paper tuxedo to attend a frat party.

Aside from that, it was a pretty good story. The main character, unnamed, was consistent throughout, as was Leah. The contents of her note struck exactly the right tone for her, and the viewpoint character’s reaction to that note was inevitable.

In short, if you can get through the first four paragraphs without throwing up, it’s a decent story.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Amends by Walker Eugene Dollahon

Amends” by Walker Eugene Dollahon, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

The story begins in a bar deep in the piney woods of East Texas during the 1940s. At this time in most of Texas you couldn’t legally by an alcoholic drink, so places like Mack ‘N Jacks sprang up in out of the way places to cater to the thirsty crowd. That crowd tended to be a bit on the rough side.

Jimmy is the swamper and general dogsbody at Mack ‘N Jacks. Jimmy’s family has fallen on hard times. Two of his brothers are in the military, one having been killed in the Pacific Theater. This affected his family deeply. His father drank himself to death, and his mother has withdrawn into herself. Because no one is working it, their farm is in danger of foreclosure. Jimmy does what he can, but he can’t do it by himself. Jimmy’s father’s one extravagance was a car. His mother hates it, but Jimmy won’t give it up.

One day Cap Pressler walks into the bar and starts ordering Jimmy around. Jimmy’s about to lay a whuppin’ on Pressler when suddenly he finds himself on the other end of that whuppin’. Now that he has established his place in the pecking order, Pressler starts treating Jimmy better, even being friendly.

Pressler meets two other men in the bar, one of whom is Jimmy’s cousin. They huddle and drink together for hours several days in a row. Finally they ask Jimmy to join their gang. They are going to rob a bank, and they need a getaway driver. Pressler says no one will get hurt, so Jimmy agrees.

The job is well planned. Each of the members of the gang knows what he is going to do and when to do it. Nonetheless, the job goes sour. Only Pressler and Jimmy get away. But a bad day only gets worse for one of them.

For a first published story, Mr. Dollahon has made one hell of a debut. The story is well told and well plotted. Cap Pressler is smooth and cosmopolitan, at least for a back-woods place like Nacagdoches in the 1940s. Mr. Dollahon also makes a good job of quiet, long-suffering Jimmy. His description of Jimmy’s anxiety while waiting outside during the bank robbery is spot on. And the ending brings home a common warning about a certain kind of person.

In short, welcome to the fold, Mr. Dollahon.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Last Act by Barry Baldwin

The Last Act” by Barry Baldwin, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

A man named Harry walks into a bar just before closing to use the restroom and make a call. Myra, the bartender and only other person in the place, offers him a cup of coffee.

Harry needs a taxi, but Myra tells him that taxis won’t come to this neighborhood this time of night. She offers to give him a ride to a bar she frequents to wind down after her shift. That bar has a taxi stand nearby.

Myra invites Harry in for a drink. She tells him her history. She’s an aspiring actress. Her sister Fay was killed in a robbery of that bar she works in. She says she works there as a way to keep Fay alive in her mind a little longer.

Harry is a car thief, at least that night he was. He had boosted an expensive car that gave out just before he walked into Myra’s bar. She had him nailed. Myra spotted the car as she was driving away from her place of employment.

Myra has a plan. She wants to rob a bank and make a score big enough to allow her to move on from aspiring actress to working actress. She wants to be smart about it, and Harry is smart enough to know a good plan when he hears it.

Harry finds a couple of guys for muscle, and they pull their job. Afterwards Harry and Myra meet at another bar. Harry reveals that the two guys he hired are now sleeping with the fishes. What happens next is a big surprise for Harry.

This story has a good plot, and Mr. Baldwin fleshes it out well. Unfortunately that intangible voice didn’t feel right. It felt like Mr. Baldwin was going for hardboiled noir but couldn’t quite pull it off. His voice felt forced.

I like colorful language probably more than most people, but “Wariness danced its silent two-step between them” is just trying too hard. The same for the two opening sentences. Either one would have been enough. Both were too much.

Worst of all, there was no emotion, no feeling. Hardboiled noir has a hard surface that on a casual reading seems emotionless, but that surface conceals a turbulent undercurrent of raw feeling. Myra felt nothing for Fay or her murderer other than what her cultural tradition demanded. That balancing act between showing the emotionless mask and allowing the reader to feel what’s beneath is a tough thing to pull off.

In short, try again, Mr. Baldwin. You’re a good enough writer that you might pull it off with practice.