Review by Matt Bell
The opening story in Steven J. McDermott's short story collection Winter of Different Directions is also the collection's shortest. At two and a half pages, "Tough Act" serves as a compressed primer to the moods and movements of McDermott's fiction. The story's narrator is driving home when he finds his car being barraged by snowballs thrown by the neighborhood kids. Remembering his own youthful days spent doing the same, he turns around and goes back to playfully chase the kids, only to find them more brutal than he had counted on. After his playfulness leads to violence, he returns several nights later to reverse the odds on the young punks who attacked him. Despite having only two short scenes to work with, McDermott manages to pack in the astonishing levels of nostalgia and regret as well as an undercurrent of stunning violence that becomes familiar over the course of the collection.
McDermott's gifts as the editor of Storyglossia serve him well in his own writing. Hardly a word is wasted as he consistently writes clear, well-crafted prose that knows the power of a simple phrase uttered clearly in the right place. Stylistic hijinks are not the attraction here. Rather, McDermott's words draw from the simplest palettes of his character's inner monologues as they move through the sterile landscapes of both a failing corporate America and a natural world which no longer holds the promise it once did. His characters bring to mind the kind of people who compulsively squeeze stress balls all day or who drive one more block even when they know they're already lost, because they've convinced themselves that if they just go far enough the wrong path will turn into the right one. Frequently lost and confused, these stubborn characters nonetheless cling to their paths until one of two things happen: either they find their way or else they stay lost forever. Rarely does salvation come from outside in these stories, nor does it come easy or without sacrifice.
One of the collection's strongest stories, "Delisted", uses small numbered fragments to tell the story of Martin, the CEO of a internet startup. As his company rises to prominence and then crashes, he is unable to ask for help or to stop playing hardball with everyone he interacts with. A former ski-bum and burnout, Martin has rebuilt himself into a new person, only to find that his business and financial success were not the answers he was looking for. In the end, he is left with only questions. Having been both a bum and a businessman, he doesn't know which he prefers. "Success or failure, which was it? And how did you decide… From whose perspective was the question decided? Was he a success because he thought so, even when no one else did? Was he a success when others thought so, even if he felt himself to be a failure?" This uncertainty haunts him until the final sentence and then beyond it. Like many of McDermott's characters, Martin cannot ever be sure he has made the right decision. In these stories, it is possible that there are no choices that are one hundred percent right or wrong, that perhaps the best outcome possible is simply the recognition that uncertainty is not the worst thing that can happen to you, that growth comes from doubt more often than it comes from faith.
Another story titled "Gas Money" drips with desperation at every turn as it details the possible rise of Radcliffe, a landscaper who has cut and run from his old life in Los Angeles to make a fresh start in Seattle. Living in his work van, he sits at picnic tables in the park and hammers out landscaping proposals on a portable typewriter before moving his van for the night. From his clandestine showers at the YMCA to his digging a dinner of catfish tubers from a creekbed, Radcliffe's every move is carefully calculated to save one more dollar, like a too-skinny predator conserving calories in the depths of winter. By putting so much tension on Radcliffe's dwindling cashflow, McDermott has brilliantly depicted a sort of last ditch attempt that surely happens everyday: Already, homeless and unemployed, what chance will Radcliffe have if he cannot get a contract and a paycheck before his last dollar is spent? The smallest victory here means the world, and McDermott manages to make every indignity Radcliffe suffers feel like a step forward instead of a slide into despair. Dichotomies such as the one in "Gas Money" persist throughout the collection, and setting up and then subverting the reader's expectations of those relationships is one of McDermott's strongest gifts as a storyteller.
Within the loosely defined genre of "lowlife lit," it's customary to find stories that chronicle the continued downward spiral of the protagonist. Not so in McDermott's work. Here, the characters that are broke, homeless, or losing their jobs are most often found trying to improve themselves, whether it's as a bitter musician starting a new band in "Fresh Sludge" or as the narrator struggling with the loss of his wife in "Down and Out". Defying expectations, it's the characters who are most successful who find themselves on the losing end of life, as in the above-mentioned "Delisted" and the horrifyingly sterile "Cleanliness is Next to Emptiness".
Again and again, McDermott proves himself an astute chronicler of the way we see ourselves, not only in the mirror but also in relation to each other and the world around us. It is a rare person that is highly talented as both an editor and a writer. Storyglossia proves McDermott as a writer every issue, and Winter of Different Directions puts forth a similar proof of his talents as a writer. Despite being a debut collection, this book shows the years of experience that McDermott has in both analyzing and writing the short story, as well as an impressive feel for the lives of his characters, all culminating in a literary experience that should not be missed by anyone in love with the short story.
Full Disclosure: I have previously been published in Storyglossia, of which Mr. McDermott is the editor, and am currently a member of the staff at SmokeLong Quarterly, which published "Tough Act" (although that was before I joined the staff).
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