3 out of 4 stars
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ILLUSTRATED SHORT FICTION of William H. Coles, 2000 – 2016 might best be described as an illustrated collection of 'experiences' (rather than merely stories), told through often-poignant slices of life. He does that. As a writer William H. Coles is not limited in his portrayal of the human animal and that inherent Ying-Yang element within us all; and in that grasp of life he presumably possesses (along with probably astute research) he—in this collection—becomes that unique antenna above this melting-pot society in which we live. Coles is a superb weaver of words—a writer that settles you down to look beyond a character’s façade and into that character’s anguish or joy or longing and does it while quenching any thirsting for expressive prose interspersed with piercing in detail. In this collection, the author opens the raw guts of the human to us. He does this through his exemplary plotting along with his incisive crafting of characters. The writing in this collection is just spectacular. To whet your reading appetite, here are a few randomly chosen passages:
‘… Marion walked with startling contortions, his back arched like a strung bow, defying gravity as if he were in a perpetual backward fall. His almost useless right foot jerked up as if he had stepped on a hot fire, then it slammed down like stomping a roach while his left foot pointed delicately forward like a ballerina’s. To change direction, he thrashed with pinwheel movement as if balancing on a shaky high wire, left arm stiff with down-pointed fingers, his right bent and twisting….’ (The Cart Boy. Page 141.)
‘My father, a tall, imposing figure of a black man with bulging muscles from carving statues and grave markers for the dearly departed, tried not to look. He felt strange around women, I assumed because my mother had left when I was two. He never talked about her or much of anything, and we lived alone on a twelve-acre plot of half-swamp property where I suffered his long silences, broken only by the sharp blows of a hammer driving a metal chisel into stone.’ (The Stonecutter. Page 61.)
‘…But every time I stepped into her house, memories of her ex-husband rustled around me in the walls like trapped rodents. …’ (The Necklace. Page 69)
‘My one unbreakable rule was to never pick up a hitchhiker. And definitely never at night. But at the far edge of the headlights this girl showed up in the breakdown lane near mile marker 381, kind of humped over as if she didn’t even know I was bearing down on her. Not like a hooker, who’d be standing straight with her hand waving shoulder-high and her head tilted like a come-on, or some hidden robber’s decoy girl, waving with both arms like the ship was sinking. I slowed with no thought of stopping. She stumbled into the slow lane and crumpled to the ground; I swerved left to keep from killing her. I checked the mirrors, black except the yellow glow-dots of my running lights. I pulled into the breakdown lane, put on flashers, climbed down, and walked back to her. I didn’t see any movement in the darkness of the roadside pine forest.’ (Inside the Matryoshka. Page 155.)
In this 411-page, thirty-five-story collection, William H. Coles covers subjects that defy easy genre-categorization; his palette is varied throughout. He writes of pains and joy; of lies and truth; of trust and deception; of hate and of love—of love joined and love unrequited. He writes about blacks and whites (the affluent, the poor, the wretched) with an equal depth of empathy. He writes of immigrants and xenophobia; of circus oddities and the handicapped; of longing and loneliness; of weakness, indifference and the strength and forgiveness; of sex trafficking in immigrant girls. He writes about con men, psychopaths and liars; of selfishness and self-preservation; of suicide; of a murder in a family; of trusting souls and magnanimous hearts; of pride, prejudice, and Jim Crow. He writes about the light within us—sometimes failing, sometimes glowing. He writes of loss and forgiveness for old wrongs. He writes of humanity … and hope. ILLUSTRATED SHORT FICTION by William H. Coles is a page-turner—forgive the cliché, but that’s what it is. Literary candy.
It is not perfect, however. What is? So, what about downsides? There aren’t much on the literary side—and in a collection as large as this, it is understandable that a few typos would show up. There are places with missing fulcrum spaces that are necessary to indicate that some time has passed between one section and another. Here is something else: If, as a reader, you require all your stories to end happily-ever-after and tied-off, this may not be the collection for you. The author understands that good short stories often leave readers pondering their endings and, in many instances, the what-could-have-beens. What causes this collection to lose one star, however, are the illustrations that are mostly frontispieces and end pieces to stories. Most lack mood and expressive depth; many of them, regrettably, are merely decorative. In a latter section of the collection there are two stories—Homunculus and Reddog presented in the form of the true graphic novel. Both, sadly, are rather poorly done—and it takes away from the collection. A pity an editorial decision wasn’t to exclude them.
Throughout the read there was one whispered refrain that escaped me continually: “Damn! This guy can write!” I give this collection 3 out of 4 stars and recommend it for anyone who considers herself/himself an open-minded reader who doesn’t mind illustrations along the way.
Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016
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