Monday, October 9, 2017

A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, by Nick Kolakowski, review by John Stickney

Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps
By Nick Kolakowski
Shotgun Honey, an imprint of Down & Out Books

"Listen. At some point, a poor sap will look at you and say, “This is the worst day of my life.” But as long as you have breath in your lungs to say those words, you’re not having your worst day. You haven’t even hit rock bottom, much less started to dig. You can still come back from a car wreck, or that terrifying shadow on your lung X-ray, or finding your wife in bed with the well-hung quarterback from the local high school. Sometimes all you need to solve your supposedly world-ending problems is time and care, or some cash, or a shovel and a couple of garbage bags. If you see me coming, on the other hand, I guarantee you’re having your worst day. Not to mention your last. Let me show you how bad it can get…"

So begins the novella  “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps."  Author Nick Kolakowski, veteran flash and short fiction writer, fully displays what makes his short fiction such a joy to read: an ability to seduce the reader, strong and intriguing openings, followed by an equally well told story. The man can spin a yarn. The above quote is the start of half the story.  Our gunman asks - You think you’re having a bad day?  Take a gander at the introduction of his target, our ‘hero’ Bill –

"Bill awoke, as one sometimes does, dangling upside-down over a pit, ankles wrapped in heavy chains, sweat stinging his eyes, head throbbing like a dying tooth. He heard a dog bark in the night, and the muted roar of what he guessed was the Interstate, but the only light came from a bare yellow bulb bolted to a corrugated-metal shed far below…""

Even if Bill can somehow Houdini his way out of the handcuffs, he still is suspended by chain-bound legs over an abrupt and too permanent ending.  Some escapes are unwanted.

The story is told by alternating point of view, a bouncing tennis ball between these two, pursuer and pursued. Bill and the gunman are both misfits in their organization, well Bill’s former organization, the Rockaway Mob, and both are in the midst of their own personal existential crises. Bill, a con-man running insurance and identity theft scams for the Mob thought he’d solve his crisis by stealing three million dollars from his employer, pick-pocketing an unlimited balance credit card from one of the Mob bosses, and then make a break for the border. Ultimately he planned to live out the rest of his natural life on an Island with a life so exclusively sweet HGTV would be envious but barred from filming.

"When Bill stole those millions from the Rockaway Mob, he thought it would buy him liberation so complete, it would eliminate every concern from his mind, forever. Instead he found himself gripped by a fear so pure, it soaked his shirt with a constant ooze of sweat.  The only thing standing between him and a gruesome death was his spectacularly anal-retentive escape plan. Any enforcer who kicked in the door of his apartment, ready to yank Bill’s tongue through a new hole in his neck, would find empty rooms… Not even his girlfriend had any idea he left."

Of course Bill ends up getting his money-laundering partner killed, losing all the dough but for his initial escape money of $50,000 secure in the car trunk, and with not one, not two but three different Rockaway pursuers on the hunt for him including his abandoned girl friend and our gunmen.  Oh yeah, his car begins bucking like an untamed horse in the middle of nowhere.  We see where his narration begins, suspended over a yawning pit.  The best laid plans and all….

Back to the existential crisis.  Our gunman?  His crisis is brought on, well, let him explain:
"I've always hated the word “killer.” And don't get me started on “hitman.” A few months before we divorced, my now ex-wife asked how I could live with myself. How I could fire a bullet, or press a button, or toss a radio into a bathtub, and end somebody's existence.  If not me, I told her, then something else would have terminated those people: a heart attack, or cancer, or maybe a nice fiery car crash. I’m just the vessel, a way for the natural order of things to express itself. “I don’t worry whether I’m a bad man,” I added, “any more than a hurricane worries about the damage it causes.” I would have added a little something about the ultimate meaninglessness of existence, except I noticed she’d already fallen asleep. The story of our marriage, in one priceless interaction." Our gunman is trying to work through things on a personal level and is given to bouts of weeping and gluttony.

Not to give too much away, but in this story there’s weaponized drones, crooked cops, a bedridden mob boss who blinks out commands in Morse code, love, death and something resembling noir-ish redemption. Oh, and a gun-toting Elvis impersonator, all the ingredients of a read that’s surprising, compelling and just plain fun.  Shotgun Honey has existed for years as a purveyor of flash fiction. Under the umbrella of Down & Books, they issue short story collections and novellas as well.  Shotgun Honey and Nick Kolakowski are to be congratulated, ‘A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps’  is an excellent beginning to their new publication venture.

John Stickney splits his time between Cleveland, Ohio and Wilmington, NC.  His fiction has appeared in ThugLit, Needle, and others.  His story ‘The Oldest Old Country’ was selected to appear in the 2017 Bouchercon Anthology.

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