That disturbing yet eloquent line opens “His Footsteps are Made of Soot,” one of my favorite stories in Nik Korpon’s recently released collection Bar Scars. The nine stories which form the collection clock in collectively at around 80 pages, and every one of them has clearly been crafted with the utmost care. As with any collection, however, there were a few that particularly stood out to me.
“Alex and the Music Box” finds a guy sneaking back into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment to retrieve the music box he’d given her. But instead of getting in and out with surgical precision, he lingers a bit too long and finds himself trapped when his ex returns from a night out at the bars…and she’s not alone.
The tension in this one is nearly unbearable, as Korpon paints his lead into a corner – or under a bed as the case may be – leaving both the poor guy and the reader to wonder how he’s getting out without getting caught. This being a Korpon story, however, we quickly realize that under the bed was probably the best place for the burglar boyfriend to be, as things go from awkward to alarming upon his emergence from hiding.
“His Footsteps are Made of Soot” is the story I think perhaps best captures the mixture of grit and eloquence which makes Korpon’s writing so intoxicating. The story’s lead works as the assistant to an off the books surgeon who performs procedures in his less than sterile basement operating theater. I mean, one should seriously rethink their desire for cheap elective surgery when their doctor works with such sophisticated equipment as filet knives and tongs, a corkscrew and melon baller, fishing line and a nitrous oxide tank covered in clowns.
But as the story unfolds we learn that when not at work helping fix the (perceived) problems of strangers, the narrator spends his time at home trying to mend his mother, a woman both mentally and physically worn down by time, and a broken heart. Day after day, night after night the dutiful son is forced to relive memories of a man he remembers very differently than his mother does, a man whose faults he’s not willing to overlook or forgive. And when he thinks he’ll break if he has to carry – literally or figuratively – the burden of his mother any longer, he finally understands why people are willing to roll the dice to have the basement surgeon excise their problems. The decision he makes, and the final paragraph of this one, hit like an iron fist in a velvet glove.
“This Will All End Well” is not easily summarized, in large part because it constantly keeps the reader off balance and summarizing it would ruin some of the changes of direction that occur. There are only three characters involved, two men and one woman, but just what their relationships are to one another subtly shifts as events unfold. The tables don’t just turn, they spin like a Lazy Susan, forcing readers to continuously reassess their perceptions of victim/victimizer and weak/strong. The question of loyalty – to whom is it owed and at what cost – is also explored. And, for those who believe in the concept, there’s also a hint of karma coming full circle for one of the characters.
All that makes for a somewhat cryptic review I know, but the story deserves to be read fresh, with no foreknowledge of the actual plot. Rest assured that ultimately “This Will All End Well” is a wonderfully complex and satisfying story, one which allows readers to take away different feelings and conclusions depending on the individual perspective from which it is approached. Yet no matter what you take away from it this is noir, so despite the title you just know things don’t really end well.
In yesterday’s guest post, “My Own Private Macondo,” Korpon explained how in the process of assembling the stories for the collection he came to realize that over the course of five years he had subconsciously been creating a single universe of characters, despite thinking at the time he was writing each story that it stood on its own. Once he figured that out, things dropped into place and the Baltimore we see in Bar Scars came fully to life.
Instead of hanging out at any number of bars, The Pine Box (so named because its floor was made from disassembled coffins) would become the dive to which all of Korpon’s characters would gravitate. The thug who plays a central role in one story now shows up again as a passing mention in another, giving what could have been a hollow bark substantive bite. It all helps to give a context and depth to each story which would not exist were they tales which unfolded each in their own unique universe.
Korpon’s Baltimore is not a particularly pretty place, but even in its darkest corners his characters’ humanity always shines through.
Bar Scars is available from Snubnose Press.