Saturday, January 29, 2011

New Books: Every Shallow Cut by Tom Piccirilli

There's a long tradition in American literature of writers using their mental and spiritual breakdowns as material for their work. Certainly Poe's phantasmagoric moments allude to his sometimes tenuous grip on reality; Jack London traveled to Whitechapel to see if The Ripper was worth writing about and ended up in an asylum--drunk and temporarily insane; F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about how his personal crash coincided with the market crash of `29 in both the infamous The Crack Up and in the wan sad opening lines of "Babylon Revisited;" and Fredrick Exley's masterpiece A Fan's Notes is nothing but a poetically and clinically detailed charting of alcoholism and dislocation and madness.

Tom Piccirilli's new novella Every Shallow Cut indirectly owes it title to a line on page 139. The novelist-narrator, wasted and wandering, possessor of both murderous thoughts as well as a hand gun, is told by a writer friend who suggests he might be better off in a mental hospital for a time: "I can feel every shallow cut you've ever suffered in it (the writer's new manuscript), all of them still bleeding, tearing wider and becoming deeper. You can die from a paper cut if it becomes infected."

And that's what Tom deals with in the novella. Infection. An infected narrator, an infected world.

The narrator--an esteemed novelist with a trunk load of literary awards and an empty bank account. "A pore lonesome wife-left feller" as Nelson Algren said of one of his characters. Groping for some kind of understanding of all the things that torment him--being fat for so much of his life (though no longer), his resentful relationship with his older brother and the publishing world's indifference to anything except commercial success.

The world is even more infected than the narrator. There are many references to the market crash--jobs lost, houses and cars repossessed, millions of people, much like the narrator, wandering, seeking, as baffled and hurt as he is. He even sends up the publishing business by spoofing some of the books that are hot tickets. My favorite is the one where the archangel comes back to earth to manage a kids' baseball team.

I love the writing here. It is stripped down to a kind of Charles Willeford-Charles Williams simplicity that is all the more effective for its bluntness and accessability. The dialogue is dead-on. The man's relationship with his dog Churchill could have been the one false treacly note but Tom makes it work perfectly. No cutesy-poo.

Tom Piccirilli has written many fine books and stories but at this point in his career, for me anyway, I would call Every Shallow Cut his masterpiece.

1 comment:

Wayne C. Rogers said...

A very beautiful and poignant review of Tom's book. You hit the nail right on the head with a sledgehammer, Ed.