‘Please, No Eyes’ by JD Mader
Synopsis: This is a collection of stories. Many of them revolve around San Francisco. Many of them evolved from the schisms in JD’s brain. Some of them are love stories. Not many though. Unless you believe every story is a love story… which is a notion JD endorses. None of them are true.
‘Please, No Eyes’ is available from http://www.amazon.com/Please-no-eyes-ebook/dp/B008G39SZ6 and http://www.amazon.co.uk/Please-no-eyes-ebook/dp/B008G39SZ6.
JD Mader is a writer and musician who hangs his laptop in the San Francisco Bay Area. JD began writing professionally at age fourteen as a sportswriter and columnist in San Diego. He is a graduate of the illustrious Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University.
There are twenty-three stories in this collection, and while I often pick the titles I like the least and read them out of order, I don’t do that with my reviews but read them in the order the author (or their publisher) intended.
The collection starts with the first-person viewpoint story The Truth about Harold Walken, a man who loves cheese. The story is quirky and as regular readers of this blog will know, I love quirky. The first sentence made me smile: ‘Harold liked cheese far more than most men would publicly admit to liking cheese, yet he declared it to the world.’ JD’s, or should I say, the narrator’s voice is evident from the start – chatty to the reader as if they’re talking directly to you (me) – and I like stories that follow this format. The introduction, and indeed the front cover, tells us that the book is based in and around San Francisco so I knew I’d learn something new about the city (I’ve never been to the States but am of the ‘Streets of San Francisco’ TV series era) and on the first page ended up googling (other search engines are available) the BART station. BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. It’s fine that I didn’t know that. I didn’t have to look it up but I’m reading the collection on my computer screen while I type this review (Alt / Tab is a great device) because it was in context. Having just the word ‘station’ tells us where we are. Me being me (a writer), I just wanted that bit more of an explanation.
This story, and I suspect the collection, is not for the faint-hearted. It has swearing, lots of it – a brave choice for the opening story – and it’s grim but then so is Jay McInerney’s novella Bright Lights Big City which is my favourite second-person point of view. Once you start a book and you get hit with this in the first few pages you make your choice to stop or read on. Of course, I did the latter. The narrator’s description of Harold is hilarious and the story weirder. Did I say I like weird?
Green follows and I critiqued this back in December 2012 (you can read that here) and it still feels as fresh today.
Time and Life, like the first story, is told in first person, and again has an intimate feel about it, although this has a charming quality, especially the spaceship game. Family relationships often feature in stories and here we have our protagonist, Roger, talking about the strained relationship with his father, as male:male relationships often are. The sections alternate from sweet to dark (which kept me on my toes) and then the two merge.
Dinner with the Mercers is a charismatic tale of an unconventional household; husband, wife, child and ‘uncle’, and told in present tense, it feels like we’re there when it happens and I love the occasional use of future tense. The ending was a surprise yet not a surprise. :)
Affection = mostly dialogue, short, sweet, funny.
Humour also starts Tree Pieces with a rhythmic first paragraph as we’re on board a train. I often have characters called Jack in my short stories, and like JD’s, solid characters, as the name suggests. I enjoyed being introduced to Amber and Giacento (a name I think I’ve not come across before). This, like many of JD’s other stories, is heavily narrator-lead and skips from character’s head to character’s head, which could be confusing (and within the same section is against the ‘rules’) but the writing is as solid as the characters so it’s not. And this piece has a lovely, lovely ending.
Fishing does what it says on the ‘tin’ but is also about relationships; familiar and marital, about love and loss. Sad but sweet story.
Liar throws us into a situation of revenge so one I knew I’d enjoy reading (not that I haven’t been up to now) and I wasn’t disappointed, especially by the ending.
There are loads of clever metaphors and similes in this collection and Standing on Cesar Chavez St., 8a.m. starts with ‘It is hot in the sun. The heat pours down my neck without mercy. It’s like an angry woman, one who has been wronged.’ This story, the ninth of twenty-three is half-way through the book so I wasn’t surprised to find it was just two (on-screen) pages long. I usually tell my editing clients that it’s fine to use contractions (e.g. it’s instead of it is) and this story has none where it could have plenty but it gives the narrator a certain eloquence which by the end feels anger. The power of words.
Them is about another unconventional relationship and they often make the most interesting of stories. It’s a very touching piece and although the end wasn’t a surprise (only by what happened in the previous paragraph), it was definitely an ‘ahh’ moment.
There are many uses of second-person viewpoint (‘you), my favourite, throughout this collection and none more so (to-date) than Movie, the Story. It’s a very quirky piece with another alcoholic overweight character – they should all have flaws. That’s what makes them interesting.
For William Burroughs, whom I despise is an interesting title. I’ve never read any of William’s writing and wondered if this is JD’s opinion or one of his character’s (or both). Another relationship/hardship-based story, it’s gritty yet you (I) can’t help feeling sorry for the characters. As I tell my students, the characters are the most important aspect of any story. If we don’t care what happens to them and want to turn the page to find out, then an author can create the best plot in the world but the reader won’t get to it.
San Francisco has a great first sentence: ‘Cars and carcinogens clog the veins and arteries of our city.’ The story is an interesting (and dark) look at the city, which could be any metropolis with a look at the lows from one man’s viewpoint. Like some of the other stories in this collection, there are Americanisms and in San Francisco, these include dickies and thrift store, which because of their context, I don’t need to look up (I know what a thrift store is anyway). An amusing tale.
Drive is another moving tale of relationships and distance, physically and metaphorically.
I thought Susan’s Story was going to be from a female perspective but, like the others, is from a male viewpoint (as could be expected from a male author) and again about failed relationships. It’s often said to avoid twins in stories but there are differences between these two so I know a, ‘it was really the other one’ ending wasn’t likely. I was right. A satisfying ending (for the reader anyway).
Polaroids is a mixture of viewpoints: first, third and second, the latter of which is well-suited to ‘dark’ and again the switching kept me on my toes. ‘My father’s hands were like dead frogs’ made me smile.
Johnny Otis was doomed from the moment he was born: ‘his mother never quite forgave him for coming into the world as Elvis was leaving it’. Another strange story featuring him and a woman called ‘Jane’ (I also usually recommend to writers not to have two characters with the same first initial but at least these two look different on the page). Then we have Justin, and while some parents do call their children by their initial (my mum did), I’m iffy about having three characters beginning with J, although they do still look different on the page, so it’s fine.
400 continues the drinking and smoking theme, as many of these stories weave. I love stories about writing and the title of this piece is a perfect fit.
The Scar features another Tony (as there was mention of in Drive) and a Jimmy who I thought was Johnny (see how the reader – me – can get confused with names that look similar when there’s a gap in between?).
The main subject of Trim It Out is ‘Jackson’ so another J. I recently edited some stories where the author’s name began with a ‘J’ and some of his characters’ names also started with a ‘J’. Perhaps it’s sub-conscious but I’d recommend authors be careful of the names they use. In one client novel I edited, the author had five characters whose first names began with M (not the same as his own). He hadn’t realised it until I pointed it out. I created a very simple table for him with the first column reading the letters of the alphabet one on every other line then the headings of four subsequent columns reading, ‘Female first name, chapter no.’ (where the character first appears), ‘Female surname, chapter no.’, ‘Male first name, chapter no.’, and ‘Male surname, chapter no.’ This allows no more than each letter being used twice and it doesn’t matter that the first name and surname aren’t connected within that table. Another template I use (also in my teaching) is even easier. It’s a grid three columns wide and nine rows long with a letter in each space so that the author can just use one letter per character. You can use two grids (one for first names, one for surnames) if you have a lot of characters but technically just one would give you thirteen characters which is more than enough for a novel but perhaps not quite enough for short story collections, but then characters wouldn’t necessarily have surnames in short stories so you could have over twenty with one grid. Do email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like a copy of either / both template(s). This story was another which reflects from adulthood to childhood and back again and certainly gives us an insight into the ‘human’ mind, something JD excels at.
The thing I love about short story collections (those with Tables of Contents anyway) is being able to read the titles up front and the title of the next story The New Ascetic intrigued me the most. I googled the word ‘ascetic’ which http://dictionary.com told me is, ‘a person who dedicates his or her life to a pursuit of contemplative ideals and practices extreme self-denial or self-mortification for religious reasons’. It features a man with beer, a truck, and a relationship breakdown, a familiar theme of this collection – like an old blues record.
Hook first sentences work, really work, and Hidden has a great opener: ‘In the time it has taken you to read this sentence, Hector has died’. In second-person viewpoint, we again flick from present day to childhood, and it’s another sad tale.
The final story of the collection, The Woman and the Wall, is another combination of a first-person narrator’s observation of the people, and city, around him. The end of the end should be concluding and this is. It was a journey getting to this point but a thought-provoking one nonetheless.
There are some great phrases in this collection including ‘the plumbing groans like a fat man’ (I can particularly enjoy that because I’ve lost four stones, 56 pounds, in the past 12 months).
I’m a fan of dialogue and while some of these stories were written in first-person viewpoint which, by its nature, limited the use of dialogue, there were passages longer than they need have been. Poets are often fans of description and love dense pages but I find they slow down the pace of a story. As part of my teaching, I’m instructed to avoid handouts with dense text, and I’d recommend the same with this collection.
While I really wouldn’t have put Harold Walken as the leading story (because it was one of my least favourite) – because I think it would have put some readers off – like Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I’m glad I kept going and enjoyed the book. This isn’t a collection for the faint-hearted but those of us with harder hearts will be glad we read it.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local county council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page). She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog.
Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has six others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/books-mine/short-stories.
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