STIFF  by Steve Hughes


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A zany collection that explores alcoholism, modern Detroit, and characters who yearn for “the tender warmth of female companionship.”

To describe it, Hughes’ slim 16-story debut seems eclectic. There are stories with elements of magical realism; for example, “Lucky Fucking Day,” in which a pumpkin-headed man lets his mistress carve his face, and “Wood for Rhonda,” in which a witch, trying to increase her husband’s virility, turns his body into a woodlike substance, a curse he begins seeing in other men around town. Then there are stories which, in the Raymond Carver lineage, might be described as Rust Belt Gothic and are characterized by human wreckage, alcoholism, and characters yearning for physical connection. One of these, “When Drink, Drugs, and Floor Polish Steal Your Youth and Your Woman,” gives us a thoroughly dysfunctional couple who decide to burn their house rather than be evicted from it; in the process they rekindle their sexual appreciation for one another. Then, finally, there are the George Saunders–esque stories, like “I Am Still Learning About the World,” the narrator of which replaces his ex-girlfriend with a robot look-alike—he buys the “ ‘Irish Beauty’ upgrade kit”—and this, rather than creeping the ex-girlfriend out, somehow wins her back. But though the stories, when thus described, imply a wide-ranging imagination, they in fact share more than they don’t. Every story has a first-person male narrator. In nearly every story the love object is female. Alcohol abounds. So does stilted dialogue (“It’s finally Friday,” one character says. “Is it really? Holy shit!” says the narrator). The attempts at humor tend toward the sophomoric, and Hughes’ narrators nearly always overexplain their emotions rather than trusting the reader to insert their own. These last two tendencies are in play when the narrator of “Ted and His Heartbeat,” looking for weed in his mother’s underwear drawer, finds several G-strings and thinks: “Dang, Mom! I didn’t know how she could wear this shit, bisecting her butt cheeks. Ugh. I just couldn’t take thinking of her in these skimpy nothings.”

Imaginative but leaves little room for the reader's own imagination.

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-8143-4588-7
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Wayne State Univ. Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2018


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