Crackpot Palace, by Jeffrey Ford

I cited Mr. Ford last week in a debate we were having on the finest examples of contemporary literature in a class over at UCF. His writing is energetic, haunting, exhilirating, lyrical, and damned funny. You'll see what I mean when you encounter this line:

The fire-eater never even turned around but kept working like he was nonunion.

I dare you not to chuckle at that one. It's just one of many great lines that speak to Ford's gifts as a storyteller. His tales have a pretty fierce duality. He packages humor with dark, dark content to great effect. Those who've read his story "The Drowned Life" can expect a lot more of that here.

And Ford's writing is just getting better. While some of the tales in this collection were written many years ago, most of them are of a recent vintage. I've read all of his collections, and this one is the best so far.

Most pitchers lose their fastball over time, and sometimes that analogy has some appropriate overlap with fiction writers. I'm happy to say that, in the case of Jeffrey Ford, his heater is alive and well.

Ford's eye for detail and ability to turn a phrase are on display in his more nostalgic stories. That nostalgia, by the way, isn't of the wondrous, rosy, geez-life-is-great variety. It's the realistic, pragmatic nostalgia that accompanies the memories we've all had of struggling through a period of time, of living in crappy apartments over crowded alleys. "Every Richie There Is" is a great example of this. It's a short examination of those people in our lives that become symbols of a certain time and place. We all know a Richie--he's abrasive and strange and frail and brash; he imposes on others and, though we may not want to talk to him every day, we feel a little weird about the days in which we don't. And then, one day, he's just gone and we're left to ponder our own mortality.

"Down Atsion Road," "The Double of My Double Is Not My Double," and "86 Deathdick Road" explore some of the same human depths. Ford is at his best when he's writing about the interior and exterior conflicts that haunt us: the fear of growing old, of being usurped, of living in isolation, of being ridiculed. The beauty of these tales, though, comes from the surreal undercurrents. There's menace in the most innocent of objects and gestures, and Ford knows just how to push those buttons to ratchet up the tension.

This narrative treasury is filled with stories of all types. "The Coral Heart" is a sorrow-filled fantasy; "The Seventh Expression of the Robot General" a gear-clicking sf story with balls; "Sit the Dead" is an idiosyncratic vampire tale.

If you haven't read Ford's stories, this is a good place to start. Once you get going, you'll find gems in his other collections as well. Highly recommended...

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