by Jackie Corley
Tucked into the darkened corners of New Jersey’s broken homes and addict hovels live Jackie Corley’s characters. They’re caught between numbness and desire, and their ambitions only extend as far as their tenuous loyalty. In her collection of short stories, The Suburban Swindle, Corley immerses us into a world where pain means authenticity, and authenticity might be the only path to pleasure.
It’s a slim volume, eight stories alone, but all are drenched in the smallest details — the way a bitter drink slides down throats, the texture of scars from old wounds, and the way the one’s environment turns otherworldly while under the influence.
Our fingers got greased up and sticky, and we’d lick the tang that sealed up over the tobacco tint; we’d deep throat the sloppy bottle necks and laugh. (“Catfish Boys”)
I didn’t love every story — some seemed too lost in the details at the expense of plot — but I did appreciate the realness of each character. None are all that likeable, but I’ve certainly met people like them. They’re the screwed up men and women you see out in dive bars, scruffy and intense with one another, knowing the bartender by name. They smoke cheap cigarettes outside and talk blithely about their buddy’s most recent criminal troubles.
Possession remains a common theme throughout, with characters looking for meaning in friendships and romantic entanglements. They don’t know what to do with themselves if they are not giving or receiving pain in some way, as though they don’t know what to trust without it.
The cigarette should burrow through him. It should take his skin to butter and give me a rabbit hole on his skinny, hairless arm. Then I could pull up his shirt any time I wanted and admire it, that charred empty well. It would always belong to me. (“Fine Creature”)
At times, Corley gets a bit stuck on certain imagery — hands, jawlines, the way someone holds a cigarette — which sometimes cross the line from style into literary tick. I suppose all writers have them; I get stuck on arms, backs and shoulders. Perhaps they stand out more when assembling short stories from different sources into one volume. Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed had I not accidentally read another review mentioning it. (I try not to read too much about a book before I finish it — don’t want to borrow insight I might not have otherwise had.) It’s like the girl with the crooked nose — once you notice, it’s all you see.
What is great about the collection, however, is that Corley maintains her own style. Outside of the burgeoning world of online literary outlets, she’s unlike other writers. Her own online literary magazine and small press, Word Riot, consistently features writers who do not fit the comfortable “writing-by-committee” mold. She doesn’t look for easy answers or tidy endings — the situations in each story stand on their own. It takes a certain braveness, and I can respect that.
For me, even if I did not enjoy all that it contained, the sign of an effective book is wanting to read more from the author. In that, The Suburban Swindle succeeds. I am interested in the evolution of Jackie Corley’s writing, and that of Word Riot in general.
Full disclosure: Word Riot sent me this book along with two others for review purposes. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.