>>Finally got around to it: November 2013
Why do they come after me? he thought. Why does the world insist? he thought. He lived in a slaughterhouse universe under a doleful sign of dream from which he did not wish to awaken, for that seemed like death to him. You stop and you die, he thought. He met the girl coming back to find him, which was a surprise as he expected betrayal at every turn. He followed her glance and noticed for the first time the hematitic stains on his hands, his arms and spattered on his shirt, as though he had bathed in blood. She dismounted and shuffled to him without her sticks, taking his hands in turn, inspecting them with her fingers, palpating for wounds, then suddenly grazing his wrist with her hungry tongue, a gesture he could not interpret, though he felt it directly in his balls as if his body had rendered up a meaning he could not himself name. He found her muteness eloquent in ways he could not explain; she did not deceive him, veiling herself in words as people generally did until he just wanted to shoot them to make them shut up and be.
Short story collections can sometimes be difficult to review. Oftentimes I find myself resisting the urge to pick them apart and grade the individual components as if I were marking a student’s paper—noting which stories work and which don’t and coming up with a cumulative score of some kind denoting the package’s overall worth. This method is sometimes useful, though more often with mosaic collections, wherein each story exists both on its own and as part of a larger theme. However in situations like I find myself in at the moment, to do so would be detrimental to the book as a whole.
Douglas Glover’s Savage Love is a collection of twenty-two stories divided across four sections: Prelude, Fugues, Intermezzo Microstories, and The Comedies. The stories themselves, varying greatly in form and length, are an uneven assortment. The ones that work are surprising, shattering, wickedly absurd tales rife with parenthetical, fourth-wall-breaking asides and understated cynicism; those that don’t work as well flit by harmlessly without managing to detract from the high quality of storytelling that surrounds them.
In “Tristiana,” a beleaguered and weather-beaten farmer in 1869 becomes a self-styled angel of death and finds in his mute, stump-footed Indian companion a wife and accomplice. “Crown of Thorns” introduces Tobin, a not-all-there boy in love with the babysitter who disrupts the clean surface of his parents’ marriage. “Light Trending to Dark,” the strongest of the Fugues, offers up a front row seat to watch as an unfaithful husband’s life quickly unravels with several explosions of sociopathic ambivalence; he self-destructs his family with such effortlessness one might think it was his mission in life.
The Intermezzo Microstories are flash fiction of often no more than a few paragraphs. While some of the stories in this section did leap out at me—“The Ice Age,” “The Poet Fishbein,” and “Twins”—most I found to be uninteresting and a bit too esoteric for my tastes. In musical terms, an intermezzo is a composition slotted between the movements or acts of a larger performance. In the case of Savage Love, these microstories feel for the most part like a collection of experiments designed to bridge the tonal divide between Fugues and The Comedies without significantly adding to or detracting from the collection’s more visible themes. To this end they succeed.
The collection’s final section, The Comedies, is also its strongest. While I enjoyed Glover’s writing throughout, it’s in the absurdism of the book’s final six stories that he really comes alive. “The Lost Language of Ng” tells the life story of a man—possibly a fraud—from an ancient civilization about which little can be taught due to the world-ending ramifications of hearing his traditional language out loud. “Shameless” touches upon the ways children diverge from expected paths in life, and the different ways love and lust can and will shape one’s experience. (The story also includes an incredible six-page paragraph positively sick with the imagery of lust unfettered, unsatisfied, having taken over and been taken over by the mistakes in one’s past.) It’s the final story, however, that proved to be my favourite in the book. “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night” is perfunctory in its absurdity, like a mid-life crisis bottled and vigorously shaken with an unhealthy dose of spunk (yes, that). By the end of this story, reflecting on The Comedies in its entirety, it feels as if Glover has addressed the ridiculousness of love and connection from all possible angles, thus clearing the table for something new.
By numbers alone, I truly enjoyed only eleven out of the twenty-two stories in this collection. At first glance you’d be forgiven in thinking that means I disliked the book, but nothing could be further from the truth. Those eleven stories were so sharply written, so delightfully acerbic as to justify the whole. And of the larger stories it was only a few that didn’t stick with me after the fact; it was primarily the microstories that failed to capture my undivided attention. All that being said, Savage Love remains one of the strongest, most refreshing short fiction collections of 2013.