So it comes as no surprise that along with “The Scabrous Exploits…”, the dozen other stories which make up Merrigan’s recently released collection, Moondog Over the Mekong (Snubnose Press), are equally as creative and inspired. And though I’d love to talk about every one of them, I do want to leave you some things to discover completely anew for yourself, so I’ll just highlight a few of my favorites.
“The Cloud Factory” kicks the collection off, and quickly sets the tone for what’s to come. Seemingly a straightforward story of a guy driving his meth maker/dealer buddy to the bus station for his “last ride” out of town having finally quit the business, things take a hard left about a third of the way in and the story morphs into something very different. It’s a quick, neat study in how a lifetime of spinning your wheels can explode when that futile spinning suddenly finds unexpected traction.
“The Last Ladder” takes the old adage age and treachery will triumph over youth and skill and plays that out in the wonderfully wicked story of cocky young drug dealer Jeff and his unlikely delivery “boy,” the nearly 70-year-old Roy. Broke, a widower, and with a bad back in desperate need of surgery, Roy seems like the perfect candidate to accept whatever he’s given and do Jeff’s bidding without question. Oh, man, does Jeff have another thing coming.
“Our Mutual Friend” is set up by its predecessor in the collection, the incredibly stark and disturbing “Dogs at the Door,” and would be in a fight to the death for my favorite story in the collection. At the risk of being a bit of a tease, I can’t really say too much about this one other than to note that is unfolds with the most amazing melding of noir and sentimentality that I’ve ever seen put together in a single story. Hey, any story that can get you misty eyed at the mention of Walmart, well, that takes serious talent.
The other participant in my Moondog Over the Mekong death match for favorite story would be “We Would Start Here.” It may sound odd to refer to a short story as epic, but this one more than earns that descriptor. Set in an unnamed coastal city in an unnamed Southeast Asian country, the story features a meaty central section which is told in flashback, bookended by two segments which unfold in the present. The flashback segment tells the enchanting tale of an American professor’s happenstance meeting of a young local woman and the time he spends in her village recuperating after an accident. (Apparently Third World motorcycles don’t fare too well in collisions with buffalo.) It’s a lush look into a beautiful, foreign world, which makes for a stark contrast with the bookend segments depicting a Contagionesque outbreak and the country’s resulting descent into panic. Like I said, epic.
The thing that stands out to me about Merrigan’s writing is the way he absolutely nails the humanity of each story. Whether talking about American meth dealers or Asian gangsters or Old West outlaws, Merrigan is able to zero in on the essence of his characters with laser-like accuracy, bringing each to life in a way that’s both vivid in its detail and mundane in its capturing of everyday life, no matter where in the world that life may be unfolding. This is damn fine storytelling, folks.