Illusion and Delusion Served Raw

Choice Cuts by Joe Clifford
Snubnose Press
Four stars

"Earnshow jiggled the teeth in his pocket like loose change." 

Well, who doesn't want to know what happens next after an opening like that?

That line appears in "Chain Reaction," one of sixteen stories collected in Choice Cuts, Clifford's debut short fiction collection from Snubnose Press.

The stories showcase Clifford's considerable talents with an array of voices and points of view and subject matter and genre. "The Burn Out" is pure noir, with a cop and a whore caught in a mix of desire and death. You know it can't possibly end well. "Nix Verrida" is a haunting story about a man with PTSD that is reminiscent of a vintage Twilight Zone episode, while "Another Man's Treasure" is a gritty and gripping tale of a couple of low-lifes whose latest scam goes horribly awry--at least for them. "Rags to Riches" skewers the reality show world with a premise--ten homeless people vie for a million dollars--that sounds dreadfully plausible and a protagonist who has nothing but contempt for the "bums" who star in his show. (A scene where he admits to enjoying watching the homeless men being made up to look even more like losers is particularly chilling.)

Clifford's characters operate in the no man's land between illusion and delusion, and they run the gamut from a chipper homeless reality show star whose trademark line is "Smiles are free" to a lawyer who's just trying to do the right thing by his father's widow in "Favors." 

"I'd read Baudelaire and Bukowski," he tells us, "…seen Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. I knew plenty about the darker side of life." And oh, he doesn't, he sooooo doesn't.

"Go," a story about a man, a woman and an unwanted pregnancy is the best of the bunch, a little slice of low life that echoes themes of family and dysfunction that resonate throughout all the stories. The last conversation between the lovers is gut-wrenching.

Clifford has a knack for provocative lines--"I blame it all on Leonardo da Vinci," one hopeless case says before recounting his story of how everything went pear-shaped. His description of a fat crack whore in "The Captain" drips with the narrator's schadenfreude

There are a couple of stories in the collection that would be fine on their own but aren't quite as good when compared to the other stories on offer. "Meat" and "Copperhead Canyon" feel a bit predictable, though well-crafted. But really, that's like saying a juicy burger isn't quite as tasty as a blood-rare T-bone steak. It's all good.

Gutter Gripe: Girl in the Gutter hates to repeat herself, but at the risk of being a bore it has to be said: copy editors are our friends. If your publishing house doesn’t provide copy-editing, you need to pay for it like an old man who can't get it up any more. Are you listening Joe? You're too good a writer for a mistake like "Tom couldn't tell how many days PAST" to slip by. One or two grammar glitches are fine, but more than that and it looks sloppy. And if you get sloppy, you might as well be eating red pistachios. And you know what happens then…