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Review: Incarnations by Chris Deal

By Gabino Iglesias

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If Chris Deal isn't one of your favorite short story writers, he should be. The man has a knack for stuffing a lot into stories that often occupy just one or two pages. Incarnations, a collection of his stories released by Broken River Books, is packed with noir and, what's even more impressive, the kind of powerful and hauntingly poetic writing most literary fiction unsuccessfully aims to be.

Coming in at just over 100 pages, Incarnations contains 26 stories that offer glimpses into the lives of folks who have been dealt horrible hands. There are killers, cheaters, dead bodies, and victims. While none of those seem like the most innovative characters out there, Deal has a way of making everything seem new and infinitely darker than you remember it. For example, the opening story, titled Things Hidden By Leaves, has a ton of crime, a very healthy dose of resigned pain, and an absolutely unshakable noir ambiance to it, and the author pulls it all off via a conversation between two characters in a diner.

For me, the best noir is not necessarily full of guns and tough guys. Instead, my favorite narratives are those that play with tropes, reinvent a theme, or bravely put out feelers that reach into other genres and pull the best elements they have to offer to enrich the story. In this collection, Deal does all of the above. There are detectives, criminals with hearts of gold, and crooks, but what makes Incarnations special is the amount of smart details and tips of the hat that careful readers are rewarded with. From Bukowski to the Aokigahara forest, Incarnations is full of treasures waiting to be discovered.

Besides the plethora of elements Deal brings to the table, what ultimately pushes Incarnations into the must-read category, and probably the reason it become Broken River Books' first collection of shorts, is the fact that the author is ridiculously good. Yeah, it's that simple. Deal has a voice that effortlessly shifts between sharp dialogue, straight crime, poetry, and would easily be considered Southern Gothic horror. Even when his economy of language is at its most brutal, he somehow manages to deliver prose that's rich in detail and truly beautiful.

I know it sounds weird, but Deal is simultaneously gritty, smooth, and sharp. I guess you'll have to read Incarnations to fully understand what I'm talking about. And that's a good thing, because this collection is damn good and deserves to be read.