Sunday, December 11, 2016

Tim L. Williams' Skull Fragments

If you are a fan of noir fiction, I can't think of a better book that you should read than Tim L. Williams' Skull Fragments. Tim has won awards for his stories, been included in the Best American Mystery Stories in 2004 and 2012, and has been published in such notable magazines as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Plots with Guns. A resident of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, he knows his setting and characters. What I found most exciting about Tim's stories was his attention to detail and his treatment of character. His plots were no powder puffs either.
Product Details
Skull Fragments
In the first story of the collection, "Where That Morning Sun Goes Down," two down-and-out, dope heads visit a Huddle House just off the Western Kentucky Parkway four days after they murdered a drug dealer and made off with his merchandise. Listen to how the narrator describes himself and Donny Ray, the other character: "There's dirt on my face and my clothes reek of body odor and beer sweat and the gasoline that we've been syphoning from cars all over the county. Donny Ray is just as bad, with his eyes bulging and his flannel shirt caked with mud and dead leaves. We look to be the kind that make decent people vote for law and order and consider buying a gun." Later, when the two characters receive their meals, the narrator describes them like this: "The food smells good, but the sight of those cataracted eggs and the smears of blood from the steak and the sheen of chili grease on the hash browns brings sour vomit to my throat." If you don't get the sense of the dark tone of this piece, then you haven't been reading. This is no Cinderella story.
These stories are harsh. You see the underbelly of a culture seldom available to outsiders. The characters live under the radar. They are the poor, the downtrodden, the murderers, the thieves, the physically and mentally broken, like the old man in "Promissory Notes" whose "skin is the color of a nicotine stain, his face bloated and twitching, his breath heavy with rot." You cringe at the evil they inflict on each other, and yet, you are fascinated by them, like the crash on the highway that you know you don't want to see, but can't help looking anyway.
For all the evil, grotesqueness, and horror in this collection, there is also love. Over and over, you see these fractured characters reach out to each other for support and love. In "The Last Wrestling Bear in West Kentucky," the narrator who abandoned his five-year-old son spends the evening with him as an adult son and thinks, "This is my son: a murderer, a knight errant to lost girls, a rescuer of maltreated bears, a grown man who has almost forgiven his wayward father." You can hear the admiration and pride in the words. In "Something about Teddy," Lennox, who is a traveling salesman and killer, can't stop thinking about his wife dying of cancer, even as he is in the middle of a murder. In all these stories, under the darkness and evil, there are connections between the characters that humanizes them. Yes, they do things that normal people wouldn't do, but this is not a "normal" world they live in.
In the end, this is a must-read collection of noir stories. For all their problems and foibles, these characters' determination and grit in the face of poverty and hopelessness is nothing short of heroic. Take Lennox, the traveling salesman, for example. He is a murderer and kills without conscience. Yet, in the story, he comes off almost as a hero. Killing for him is neat and tidy—no suffering. I am reminded of a hunter who looks for the kill shot to make sure the animal does not suffer. Don't let the shock and horror of these stories stop you. These characters are trying to survive in a world that does not want or understand them. You might even admire them for that.

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Today, I am reviewing Tim L. Williams' Skull Fragments, a collection of short stories that I thoroughly enjoyed for the author's writing skills. He had me hooked from the first story, which sets the tone of very other stories that follows. I am eagerly anticipating seeing more of Tim's work. 


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