Even the most dedicated crime fiction/noir reader can miss a story here and there, however, so it was nice to see Joe’s work rounded up and released, with a couple of previously unpublished stories to boot, as the collection Choice Cuts. As I always do with collections, only a handful of stories will be highlighted in order to leave plenty of undiscovered territory for those new to Joe’s work.
“The Meat” is heavy on atmosphere, both physical and psychological. Accused by the Bolsheviks of being an enemy of the Revolution, an unassuming bookseller is banished to a prison on the edge of the Arctic Circle. He bides his time, doing everything possible to stay fit while planning an escape. A plan finally in place, he takes a fellow prisoner, a doctor, into his confidence and they make the final preparations. There’s only one obstacle they can’t figure out how to overcome: food. How can they have enough food to survive the long, grueling trek they face in subfreezing temperatures? Their solution is shocking, even more so when it doesn’t go quite as planned.
In only a few short pages the Bug Man in “The Exterminator” makes quite an impression, and it’s not because of his 6’4″ height and kaleidoscope of tattoos. The ex-con works as an exterminator, which is pretty good job security since “there are always bugs in South Florida that need exterminating.” When the Bug Man becomes convinced one of the tenants – a pretty, tiny, young thing – in an apartment complex he services is in danger from a stalker, he decides more than the palmetto bugs needs exterminating.
Perhaps the most disturbing story in the bunch, “Another Man’s Treasure” finds two junkies planning to rob an old man who frequents the flea market where they all sell their wares. The junkies raid dumpsters for items still in good shape or that can be easily fixed, while the old man sells jewelry he makes from the hides and bones of the road kill he collects. One of the junkies is more committed to the plan than the other, and the skin-crawling outcome will leave you wondering which is really worse: actively planning a crime, or passively allowing it to happen?
“Nix Verrida” is one of those stories where, from the jump, you just know something is very wrong. Army veteran Ray is obsessed with model trains and not much else. He putzes around at his job, and routinely ignores his wife and child in favor of the tiny city he’s painstakingly creating around his miniature railroad. Turns out Ray’s also haunted by a particular event which occurred while he was in the service, and when a mysterious woman named Nix Verrida begins calling Ray’s house both his wife and the reader are placed in the position of wondering just who Nix Verrida is and how it all fits together. The tension Clifford builds getting to the reveal is absolutely suffocating.
The washed-up mystery author in “Red Pistachios,” Tom Hazuka, was once a hotshot on the rise. Time and alcohol have not been kind, however, and Hazuka has degenerated into an also-ran teaching at the local community college. Things have fallen so far, in fact, that his publisher is dropping him and wants their last advance back. It’s “new blood” they’re looking for, the next generation, an idea Hazuka finds hilarious given the quality of the writing he sees in his Intro to Writing workshops. In a fit of spite late one night while grading papers three sheets to the wind, Hazuka fires off one of the examples from the bunch to his editor, sarcastically calling it “the future of mystery writing.” The results are unexpected, in more ways than one.
To a story, the entries in Choice Cuts explore people living on the edge. Be it those felled by addiction, making a living through crime, or scarred by emotional trauma, the characters in Clifford’s work are all walking a fine line. Some have made questionable choices along the way, the consequences of which they are fighting to get out from under, while others are still actively blundering down the boulevard of bad decisions. In every case, however, none of them get the expected results of their actions. Whether ill-advised to begin with or simply really bad luck, each finds himself faced with yet another crappy situation, often worse off than when they started.
And that’s what makes Clifford’s writing so powerful. It is raw. It is unexpected. It isn’t concerned with what’s fair. It doesn’t tie things up with a pretty bow at the end. In short, it’s life. Life distilled into sixteen amazing stories which highlight how fragile life really is and how even the best intentions can have the worst consequences.
Choice Cuts is available from Snubnose Press (ISBN: 978-1480000926).