Another Ticonderoga Publications review, following the review of “Ghost Seas” by Steven Utley of the prior post, here is a review of Lewis Shiner’s Love in Vain. Lewis Shiner is an interesting writer – I will post my review of his “Dark Tangos” here also at some point. As you can see, a slight tendency to tendentious and unsubtle “allegory” marred one story, but that is pretty reasonable odds.
Ticonderoga Publications have produced a beautiful limited edition paperback of Lewis Shiner’s 1997 collection. These are great stories, ranging over genres and locations with admirable disdain for the artificial boundaries that disfigure literature. To use one of the great clichés, there is something for everyone. More accurately, there are multiple stories to suit multiple tastes.
There are some wonderful fragments (or, if you prefer, “short shorts”) such as “Oz,” in which the lives of two villains, a pantomime pop culture villain and a real one (or, possibly, history’s greatest patsy), intersect. Similarly, “Mystery Train” takes an icon of rock and roll and puts a strangely horrific slipstream spin on him. For my money, the worst problem that writing about popular music faces is taking itself too seriously, putting a portentous spin on every aspect of itself, and forgetting the excitement, menace and atmosphere of the best popular music. Shiner’s prose — in a mysterious, ineffable way — captures the sinuous shimmering strangeness of rock at its most expressive and evocative. Reading these stories, I couldn’t get a remix of the Swiss band Young Gods’ song “Child in the Tree” out of my mind.
The “straight” stories are as well-observed, and as thought-provoking as anything else here. For instance, “Dirty Work,” the story of a down-on-his-luck man who is forced to take a job for a former high school classmate which involves tailing a rape victim, is a searing and sad account of male brutality and a decent man who tries, ineptly, to make amends. “Castles in The Sand” is a sweet snapshot of a mismatched couple at the beach — if it was a song, it would be The Mamas And Papas juddering version of “Dream a Little Dream.” There are also two pictures of father-son relationships — the intergenerational rivalry of “Match” and the casually poignant “Flagstaff.”
Then there are the historical stories, some of which are overtly science fiction, such as the portrayal of Nicola Tesla as Promethean magus in “White City,” and some of which are less so, such as the proto-Marxism of the pirate Jean Laffite in “Gold.” The most haunting stories are “Dirty Work,” again a straight story in which a down-on-his-luck family man takes a job from a former high school friend, now a successful-seeming lawyer, tailing a rape victim. The lawyer is defending the alleged rapist, and the narrator — a decent man trying to make a living — is immersed in a world of moral dilemmas. “Love In Vain,” a precursor of the Hannibal Lector/Dexter meme of a serial killer who “helps” the authorities, except this time the killer tells the police where to find the remains of victims he couldn’t possibly have killed — because the cases are entirely made up.
Shiner is able to create an atmosphere and to evoke a tone of voice that suits each of the disparate settings of his stories. This is a masterful collection, with hardly a bum note (Ok, I’ll admit it, there was one story that left me cold — the parable “The Tale of Mark the Bunny” which by my reckoning is trite and facile, but there you go) and one which I highly recommend.