Criminals, lowlifes, and losers—many of them also quixotic romantics—people Harper’s first collection of short stories, which are set mostly in the Ozarks with side trips to cities like Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Detroit.
In the opener, “Agua Dulce,” a meth addict’s debt comes due and he realizes how far he’ll go to protect his child from his merciless dealer and his cronies in Aryan Steel, a group that makes the Aryan Nation look mild. Ironically, in a later story, “Heart Check,” a new prison inmate and Steel wannabe, recently convicted of killing a child, discovers that he may have misunderstood the Steel code. But in none of these stories is the moral code exactly mainstream, from “Prove It All Night,” about a 17-year-old Missouri girl whose robbery spree with her older boyfriend ends badly for him, to “Lucy in the Pit,” about a fight-dog trainer whose loyalty to a dog is tested by the animal's owner, to “Your Finest Moment,” about a policeman plotting revenge on a fellow cop he’s caught in bed with his girlfriend. Bar owner and retired rural gangster Jackie Blue is a minor character in the almost comic “I Wish They Never Named Him Mad Dog,” in which a nickname turns a loser into a tough into a dead body, and takes center stage in “Red Hair and Black Leather” when an enticing young woman asks for his protection against her biker ex; Blue may be old but he’s smarter and tougher than any other character in the book. Certainly smarter than the narrator of the title story, who sets a dog on his loved one, already bleeding to death from a bullet wound after a botched robbery, in order to save him. “Beautiful Trash” is set in a different but perhaps even more morally bankrupt milieu, celebrity-strewn LA, where covering up the stars’ dirty scandals is a business that can ruin more ordinary lives.
Bottom-line survival competes hard against issues of loyalty, friendship, and family in this disturbing, sometimes-ugly version of reality.