Saturday, December 8, 2007

Rusty Barnes: Breaking it Down

They say that great things come in small packages. Measuring in at 4 ½ by 5 ½ inches, Barnes' little book tells 18 stories that are both poignant and memorable. Barnes is a master of Flash Fiction, who says more in a paragraph than can usually be found in a page. The characters and imagery quickly grabbed me, and held me in their short embrace. For the past week, I read a few each evening like savoring a delicious bitter-melon dish, a Sichuanese favorite, before falling asleep with a heavy heart.

The stories have an intensity that surprised me. Frequently, the situations described are grim, sometimes helpless. In the opening story, "What Needs to be Done," a farm wife of 30-years has to balance the guilt of infidelity with her 19-year-old brother-in-law, against any hope of a moment's happiness. The concurrent senses of right and wrong from a simple heart reveal unexpected complexity.

Many of the stories are set in rural America, often hinting of the South, and the characters are usually unsophisticated. Barnes, however, has managed to mix a variety of cultural overtones into the characters that made me reflect on myself. One of my favorites is Beamer, the opera loving farmer who, to his last breath, sings Arias to the dancing cows. Coincidentally, "playing music to the cow" is a Chinese adage that derides someone who speaks to the wrong audience. In the story "Beamer's Opera," our innocent writer unintentionally turns the saying around, as Beamer's whole life unfolds in a few pages and ends as artfully as it is portrayed.

Despite all their woes, the characters take the situations in stride, and Barnes renders this with authenticity. Presented from a number of different points of view, the narration never gets in the way of what is happening. Even those written in second person, which I almost always have trouble reading, came through crystal clear. This was another surprise to me – I did not expect a flash to have as complete a storyline and characterization as a "regular" short story.

I have not been what you would call a fan of flash fiction; Barnes makes me feel that should change.


Anonymous said...

Great review, Xujun. It's such a fine collection!

Pamela said...

I'm looking forward to getting this book!

Literary Monthly said...

Rusty Barnes is a real writer, no doubt about that.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful book, wonderful review. I agree that there is something culinary about the bittersweet pleasures of this collection.

Luke Lea said...

Ah, my people!