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Review of Nik Korpon's Bar Scars

REVIEW TUESDAYS keeps rockin' and rollin' in 2013 as Gutter reviewer Gabino Iglesias looks at the incredible short fiction collected in the new book BAR SCARS by Gutter alumnus Nik Korpon.

By Gabino Iglesias

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"A laugh rang out behind me. Delicate, but hoarse, like a nightingale with emphysema." Lines like that jump off the page and bury themselves under your skin like hungry worms. Brutal-yet-poetic writing like that is precisely what Nik Korpon brings to the table with each new book, and Bar Scars, from Snubnose Press, is packed with his characteristic eloquent, hard-hitting prose.

Bar Scars is neo-noir done right. Korpon pushes every boundary crime fiction has to offer and fills the new space with writing that's at once extremely vicious and lyrical, gritty and heartbreaking. Sure, the stories here are about down-and-out characters and pack the requisite violence the genre demands, but the author has a way of making everything new, a way of turning phrases into brilliant objects that make you think he's inventing a new language. Ultimately, that ability to make you wince inside and out is what makes this short book a must-read for anyone who enjoys great writing.

There are no throwaways in Bar Scars, but here are the stories that stuck with me the most.

- Alex and the Music Box (a contest winner from Out of the Gutter 5) is a tour de force in both twists and tension. A guy sneaks into his ex-girlfriend's apartment to get back a music box he'd given her. The plan is simple and he finds the box, but before he can get out, she comes back, and she's not alone. What follows is uncomfortable and tense, but it's also only the beginning. After the guy gets out of that situation, he learns that favors can go very wrong and sometimes there is simply no way out.

- Intersections is one of those stories that moves along at breakneck speed and leaves you shaking your head. In a way, it's also the only story that could be called "classic" because it deals with a man trying to do the right thing and then everything goes wrong. This is also a great example of how Korpon can switch directions multiple times in a story, dragging the reader's emotions along the way.  

- A Sparrow With White Scars is a gritty and intense look into a flashing moment in a love story between a man and a young girl. The relationship shouldn't be, and that leads to plenty of violence in the name of love. When I'm not reading crime, I'm probably reading horror, and this story has almost as much gore as an extreme horror story in the vein of Edward Lee or Wrath James White. I'm talking about bloody, bone-crushing violence. Despite the bloodshed, which Korpon puts on the page with the same elegance as everything else, what will stick with readers the most is the ending.

- A story that felt like it came out of nowhere and somehow still made perfect sense in this collection was She Sleeps Beneath Clouds of Embers. A man wakes up in a hotel room. He's bruised, disoriented, and has no idea which city lies outside his window. There's also a dildo nearby that seems to have been recently used. This is a very dark and atmospheric tale, but what makes it one of the best in a book full of great tales is the sense of sadness, desperation, and the powerful desire to escape. These last elements saturate every word in the narrative and turn a story about a man trying to get away by unusual means into a tale about dissatisfaction and loneliness that has universal appeal.

Nik Korpon is one of the most distinctive voices in neo-noir, and Bar Scars is a perfect example of what he can do. The writing in these stories vibrates with gritty lyricism and originality. Korpon writes about a dirty, broken Baltimore and the folks that deal with the worst the city has to offer. However, there is a beauty to his prose that makes even the worst situation he creates a pleasure to read.