Sometimes, when you hold a book in your hands, you think to yourself, man, I wish I’d written this book. Drift and Swerve is a little like that. It’s a book of short stories by Samuel Ligon, the writer some of you may recognise from his excellent debut, Safe in Heaven Dead (if you don’t know the debut, if Samuel Ligon is new to you, I urge you will all speed to pick up a copy of that debut – it’s a terrific book, all of the things that you like about snappy American thrillers served up with a Breaking Bad style panache).
What you get for your dollar are 14 short stories, some of which feature recurring characters (such as Nikki, the kind of girl who your mother always hoped she’d never have to warn you about) and some of which are standalone but all of which are the kinds of short stories that tie you to your seat in the damp basement of some abandoned sublet and hit you over the head. We’ve all of us read short stories that are just ideas for novels that never reach fruition. When you read short stories as short stories should be written, you instinctively know the difference. This is the real deal, you say to yourself, nodding admirably.
We kick off in ‘Providence’ with Nicky, sitting on a wall waiting for a dealer called Buckley. Her plan is to buy a little weed, buy some weed, maybe run home before Frank, her newly Puritan non-smoking non-drinking lay, gets back and head to work. Sounds simple. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. In point of fact you could say that that is what ‘Providence’ is about: best laid plans. Things end with Nikki taking off, leaving town for good, a wad of stolen cash in her back pocket, all of her hopes and dreams newly revived – hopes and dreams, even the most casual reader would more than likely suspect, unlikely to be realised…
The title story concerns a family, a man, a wife, two kids, driving back from Gramma’s house like a family of hungry wolves when they are confronted by a drunk driver drifting and swerving across the road in front of them. This is a story with a real kick, brim full with sentences like ‘The tires fwapped over black goopy seams in the concrete’ and ‘Nobody was on the highway hardly’. ‘Drift and Swerve’ is the kind of story that a lifetime of reading short stories will not prepare you for: you know the situation that inevitably ends with a wrongfooted reader and you know the situation that for some writers is enough to sustain a few pages of narrative; what Ligon does is graft a No Country for Old Men-esque resolution in which a blood-smeared driver hints at some other narrative running off to the side of the one we’ve been reading… ‘S good stuff.
‘Animal Hater’ is the short story equivalent of a jam doughnut, if you replaced the jam with something fetid and sexual, took a bite of the doughnut and then squeezed, all dark, fetid sexuality and repressed violence oozing out of the doughnut like toothpaste. There’s a guy. His relationship with his wife is a bit messed up. She’s away somewhere, in Denver maybe, and is given to talking on the phone to their daughter Carrie, sending cryptic postcards that say things like, ‘Evolution is painful’. He’s seeing a woman called Michele who may or may not be married to a police called John. Or Don. He takes Carrie to the zoo. He has a tryst with Michelle. He becomes an injured animal. The intimacy is unbearable. Gags and blindfolds are gathered up. Maybe he wants redemption. Maybe he is trying on redemption for size. It’s a puzzle. You read and it’s haunting. Part of you isn’t sure you want to share time with these people but all the same it’s quietly mesmerising.
Ligon has a kind of genius for the simplicity of shared experience. Take ‘Vandals’, a story in which we sit with Hugh in his treehouse watching the road at night. He has rigged a trap for the assholes who keep vandalising his mailbox. We know from the outset that the vandals will make an appearance. We know from the outset things will not turn out well for anyone concern. We read with trepidation, not wanting to be a party to – whatever – comes – next. Like all terrible, slow motion car accidents, though, you just can’t tear your eyes away.
The collection has a cumulative effect, so many direct hits, nary a clinker or a dud in sight. You read the first story, nod your head, think, good story, fella; you read the second story and you think, and again; the third, and again; the fourth… I said right back at the start of this review that Drift and Swerve was the kind of book you get to the end of and wish you’d written it yourself. Part of it comes from the production values (Drift and Swerve just feels good in your hands, thanks to the matt paper stock they’ve used on the cover) and part of it comes from the shot they’ve used to illustrate the cover (a doorhandle on a rusty door) but most of it – you hear that, most of it – comes from the words on the page, the arrangement of sentences, the mind behind the words, the ambiguity, the sense that you’re being treated like a grown-up (because, you know, you can read stuff and think about it and work things out in your own head, you don’t need spoonfeeding do you?).
Any Cop?: All of which add up to a book of short stories that I would say is just about essential for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the form. And if you don’t consider yourself a fan of the form? Well. Go ahead and pick up a copy of Drift and Swerve – it just might chasten you and have you rethinking the whole ‘short stories don’t really work for me’ thing you’ve got going on… It’s that good.