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Book Review: Life During Wartime

The Gutter is back from its sabbatical with. . .

A review from our resident, voracious reader.

Review: Thomas Pluck's Life During Wartime

Thomas Pluck has range. 

The stories in his forthcoming collection, Life During Wartime (Down and Out), span a continuum of settings, eras, and themes--to say nothing of the wide variety of characters he peoples them with. Such a diverse assortment of elements on its own doesn't necessarily make for good writing. But in the hands of Pluck, readers will welcome the diversity that comes with each successive story.

This guy can write.

One attribute of these crime stories is Pluck's facility at endings, at subverting our expectations, or even at affirming them, but in ways unlike what we might expect. I'm not talking about twists here, though there are plenty of those. Rather, it's the kind of thing one might see in, say, a Carver or Richard Yates. Sometimes he gives us a subdued piece of melancholy, sometimes a hopeful lift, and sometimes a hair-raising shocker. We're never sure until we reach the close. Notably, Pluck's endings always make sense in terms of characters and context; he never cheats or delivers anything contrived. And the "fates" of the characters, the status of things at the close, can always be traced to some development in the narrative, or in the environments from which the characters emerge. There's a rationale for how things work out, in other words, even if the results surprise us--and even if we might have to think about it for a while in order to fully "get it".

There's more in favor of variety, too. Pluck likes to explore micro-cultures--Mohawk skywalkers, elite Wall Street brokers, veterinary workers, MMA fighters, cruel middle schoolers, and single mothers from Harlem, among many other types and anti-types. Amazingly, the dialogue, settings, and situations all ring true. (Either Pluck has done some serious research or he's lived a life on the move!)  Despite the array of characters, plots, and settings, the stories revolve around universal human emotions and motivations: greed, lust, jealousy, revenge, desire, hope, and despair. Pluck never alienates his reader. We can appreciate the stories no matter who we are or where we come from, because we sympathize with his characters, be they ne'er-do-wells, criminals, or upstanding community members.

Additional strengths are pacing and dialogue. Pluck commonly plops us down in medias res and keeps things moving until the end. The dialogue is clever and witty, but what's most significant is the fact that it serves several purposes. Sometimes the dialogue gives us a subtle (or not so subtle) picture of a character, sometimes it hints at a motivation, or an emotion--maybe some loss or desire. Often, it figures as a device in advancing the plot. But whether an exchange involves a victim of domestic abuse, an embittered divorcee, or a hot-rodder cuckolded by his best friend, we want to read on and see what happens. And this is a credit to Pluck's ability to create believable characters and dialogue that resonates. The stories read quickly because characters say things that take us deeper into the action, and we appreciate them for it.

The author also favors crisp, concise narration that's never bogged down by self-conscious use of adverbs and adjectives. But this doesn't mean that his style lacks artfulness. He tailors his narration to the story, to the characters and settings. Again, there's an authenticity about it, whatever the place or time. Consider the following from a story about a bygone Appalachia:

"After supper we sat on the porch to hear Joe play. Red and me clapped and sang along to the jaunty tunes, and Maw sang the slow ballads. As the sun’s red blaze dipped behind our mountaintop and the jarflies buzzed their last racket of the day, Joe came to a song that made Maw close her eyes and sing real sweet. It was one Grams used to hum to herself. Maw’s voice rang high over Joe’s mournful tones.
That was the first time I realized how beautiful my mother was. Not just to me, but to other people. The last note faded and Maw finished the chorus alone."
It's in passages like this, and there are many, where Pluck shows us he has chops beyond that of many of his peers, or at least we see that he's doing something different.
But to you crime fiction readers out there, make no mistake, the stories here involve criminality at all levels. These are not "sweet tales."  Once more, there's clever plotting, great pace, twists and turns, and plenty of despicable characters to satisfy any crime-fiction lover's appetite.

Highly Recommended

Chris McGinley (reviewer) has appeared in Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama, and Shotgun Honey (forthcoming). He teaches middle school in Lexington, KY.