Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review: 'Alligator Stew: Tales from Delbert, Arkansas', by CD Mitchell

Reviewing anthologies is often difficult because they bring together writings with diverse themes and styles, even if they are by the same author. The great thing about this anthology is that the eleven stories it contains are organically linked in several ways. First, they are linked by an event which is on the horizon (fore or aft) of each story, namely the earthquake which had been predicted to occur on the New Madrid Fault, on December 3, 1990. The prediction was made by one Iben Browning, who had (we are told) accurately predicted the last big quake on the San Andreas Fault, and the eruption of Mount St Helens. The second link is the town of Delbert, Arkansas, which lies on the fault, and in and around which all the stories take place. The third, and in many ways the most important, link is the cast of characters. Many of the characters appear in several stories, and a character with a walk-on-role in one story may be the main character in another. These last two factors in particular link these stories together in a very satisfactory way.

The great overall strength of the collection is the characterisation. Many of the stories read as character studies, and the characters are beautifully drawn. They are realistic, diverse and believable. It felt good to meet again later a character who appeared in an earlier story, even if the character was not a particularly ‘nice’ person. The realism of the characterisations means that polarities such as ‘good guy/bad guy’ are transcended here. These are real people, warts and all. The nuances of the style of speech of these characters are extremely well done, without excess and without creating caricatures and stereotypes. This is quite an achievement.

In a more general sense, this is a good character study of a town and its people.

The overall writing style was good without being exceptional. While the descriptions of people’s outer and inner lives are good, more could have been done to draw the surroundings for the reader. I would not have objected to the occasional use of imagery and simile. The pace could have been more varied.

I felt that some of the stories were not quite strong enough in themselves. They may have worked well as chapters in a novel, but not as standalone pieces. This was particularly true of ‘The Sheriff of Jester County’, ‘Perception >Reality’ and ‘Flying Lessons’. Although I quite enjoyed the gentle style of some of the stories (for example, ‘Karen’, ‘Ferdinand C. Posey’), the humour of others (especially ‘Goat and Dumplins’) and the violent edge of some (‘Alligator Stew’, ‘The Sheriff of Jester County’), many lacked a clear beginning, middle and end. ‘Flying Lessons’, in particular, did not seem to have a clean ending, which is unfortunate, since it is the final piece. I would have ended the collection with ‘Ferdinand C. Posey’ instead. It would have been nice if some stories had had a sting in the tail. Consider, for example, ‘The Sheriff of Jester County’. As a story I think it would have worked better if what happened to the Sheriff’s daughter had been held back until much closer to the end. I would have liked to have been surprised occasionally. Although I would need to reread the stories and take more detailed notes to be sure, I had the feeling that some of the timelines between the stories were not quite consistent. I had this impression particularly (but not exclusively) with ‘Poverty Line’. I also felt that some of the attempts to link the characters in the different stories were a little contrived.

Although the idea of linking the stories via the earthquake prediction was good, in the end I found this aspect disappointing. In many, if not most, of the stories, this event is only mentioned in passing. It is not really the central theme of any of the stories. It is no more than a date from which to hang them. I would have expected at least one story to have the theme of the earthquake at its centre. Because of this, this linking theme seems contrived. Mention of the earthquake could be excised from many, if not most, of the stories without affecting them at all. I would be less concerned about this if the ‘Introduction’ had not made it seem as though this prediction was the central theme of these stories. It wasn’t.

As always with a collection of stories, it is difficult to give a rating. My favourite here was ‘Ferdinand C. Posey’. My least favourite was ‘Poverty Line’. I would rate individual stories from 3 to 4.5 stars. Overall, definite pluses go to the author for the interweaving of the stories via character and place, and the study of the town of Delbert itself. Overall I would give the collection 3.5 stars, but it is worth rounding up to 4 for those classification systems that don’t permit half stars.

[Note: I was provided with a final draft in MS Word of this book in exchange for an honest review.]


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