20 April 2010

More Fun than an Imploding Hospital: Charactered Pieces by Caleb J. Ross

A book that begins by begging Tom Waits, "the world's hero" not to sue on account of a few...borrowed...lyrics is either up to no good or off to a great start. Charactered Pieces, a collection of short stories by Caleb Ross, is both.

Ross has filled this roughly sixty page book with a myriad of physically, mentally and spiritually misshapen characters. Ross's protagonists all have something a little out of the ordinary. No, not like that, just enough to make them more interesting than your average joe and very engaging to follow. 

A few of most noteworthy characters include a Las Vegas barfly who may or may not being living in the back of her pickup truck, some guy from work named Bill or Bob, the title story's protagonist, a woman with an extra appendage which is not entirely hers, and the builder haunted by the ghosts of the former occupants of one of his projects.

The application of metaphor is a particular strength of Ross's. His stories never beat the reader over the head with silly contrasts like black and white, day and night; yet he still manages to make a compelling impact on the reader.  In "My Family's Rule" Ross makes strong use of familial conversations and gift exchanges to convey the overall tone of a breaking family's world and ties it all together with the very compelling imagery of the demolition of a hospital where all the family members were born. While an imploding medical facility, and all its capacity for life and death, is not a terribly delicate plot, it is remains very forceful and provokes a very strong understanding of the situation surrounding this family.

While there is not one story within this book that has a hard time getting the reader in and making a commanding statement by the end; one story stuck out as a bit clumsy. "An Optimist" tells of a former drug user, now divorced, working a failure of a job, struggling to stay clean and out of trouble all for the son he is locked in a custody battle over with his former wife. The conclusion to this piece is heart wrenching in the most honest way, and again, Ross makes beautiful use of metaphor throughout. The story also is randomly accompanied by Chinese fortunes (a herald from the protagonist's job) which adds a very creative and evocative touch. However, Ross gets a bit
too creative with description and dialog and the story breaks up at a few places within itself. He tries to apply a few too many varying techniques to some common elements of fiction, and that makes this would-be spectacular piece average at best.

Don't let his one slip scare you away. Even though this story was a bit rough around the edges it still holds true to all the incredible talents that Ross establishes in earlier stories. Apart from his terrific metaphors, Ross is a true master of characterization. Not one person that Ross includes in his stories is hard to believe. If you haven't met someone in this book, your best friend's cousin has; and that is great. A spectacular example of Ross's character skills comes from the above mentioned "An Optimist" (see, I'm fair) in which the divorced man, who favors the word fuck, eventually reveals through a complex internal monologue that "it's been six years-in the warmest bed I've ever shared." It is always good to see that a character is more than just a life hating nihilist with a dead end job. Everyone has a little spark of poet to them, and much applause to Ross for not neglecting that fact.

Between his spectacular characters, interesting stories, excellent metaphors all held together with great imagery and vivid description, Ross is a must read. He's young, fresh and down to earth enough to admittedly "steal" lyrics and write an "Acknowledgement" section that sounds more like a bonus story than a Hollywood awards speech. Keep an eye on him, he is bound to turn up more great work in the future.

Charactered Pieces  is available from The Outside Writer's Collective, released 2009. Pick this one up! It's short, cheap and worth every penny and minute you will spend on it. You can also find out more about Caleb J. Ross at www.calebjross.com and as he says in his acknowledgments, if he is ever in your town, invite him out for a beer, he will likely accept.

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1 comment:

  1. Sounds very worth my time. The breaking family story sounds especially engaging, and I'm also interested in the fortune cookies and the extra appendage. May have to add it to my summer reading list. Hope to see more from Ross in the near future!