4 out of 4 stars
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In William H. Coles' Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles, 2000-2016, we encounter 36 stories focusing on the world of the inner self striving to ascertain its highest moral principles after learning that it must compromise its standards to achieve them. The characters in these stories often face social obstacles which they overcome by transforming themselves into different moral agents. After near-death or tragic experiences, they are no longer themselves; they are stronger people who demonstrate acts of great faith. While the moralistic tone of these stories may create a bias in viewpoint, it nonetheless strives to bring us nearer to the religious milieu of the speaker.
The stories break down into major motifs. One group of stories concerns heroes' journeys and journeys into the unknown. The story "Big Gene" illustrates the heroic rise of Big Gene, an African-American facing discrimination in the Deep South. A boogie pianist who fights the Ku Klux Klan, this man challenges segregation and discrimination by standing up to violence, rescuing his friend Parker from a knife fight and pulling Parker into the realization that all men must stand up to the injustice of racial discrimination. "Reddog" tells the story of a man who has been jailed for a murder and must reveal his secrets to a researcher who is taking down the evidence as part of a study on confession. With his partner Reddog facing the death penalty for the murder of a homosexual cruelly dragged to his death, the main character turns over evidence to the researcher that could possibly win an appeal for the murderer. The story puts into question the efficacy of the proceedings around the death penalty when the main character is not in clear possession of the evidence nor has direct complicity in the killing.
Another group of stories deals with families--the lives of couples, children's maturation, and religious life. "Inside the Matryoshka" describes the journey of a young Russian girl without immigration papers who takes up residence alongside a couple who adopts her into their American household. The child learns English and acquires basic job skills working at a restaurant and a shoe store. Her fate may be that she will have to face deportation, but she fares better in relationship to her previous experience because she develops a relationship to a second homeland. Religious life is illustrated in "The Cart," a story about a boy with medical problems who is discriminated against in a store. The narrator fights to keep the boy employed at the store, performing such acts of kindness as buying him athletic shoes and driving him home from work, while others ignore the boy's medical problems and hurt him.
Coles' style displays a remarkable command of naturalistic motifs. His work is also notable for its highly skilled characterization which is always an outgrowth of the suspense. At times, more thorough attention to irony would lend the plot more depth. In "The Necklace," a story about a woman who loses her necklace on a voyage to Red Fort, more background would assist the reader in understanding the social conditions surrounding the event.
The book's illustrations are done in expressionistic color and black-and-white. The graphic-cartoon approach makes light of the cruelty of the events in relation to the grandeur of human foibles. This work will be of interest to all who cherish fine prose. I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars.
Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016
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