American Death Songs
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Jordan Harper’s American Death Songs is an intense, warped, brain-frazzling collection of short stories, up there with Steve Rasnic Tem’s Ugly Behavior collection in terms of dragging you through terrible settings populated by total bastards. Whether many can stomach it, I don’t know, but it’s definitely my kind of thing. High stakes run through every story, and if you enjoyed the stomach ache most episodes of Breaking Bad gave you, with the knot twisting your stomach at every bad move, then you have to get your eyes on this beast.
It all kicks off with Midnight Rider, a cracking story about a couple of low lives riding the streets when a cop flashes his sirens for them to stop. Unfortunately for the passenger, The Allman Brothers’ Midnight Rider kicks in on the radio, making the protagonist stamp the accelerator. A classic car chase ensues, each guitar lick encasing his determination in concrete. It’s a beauty, punctuated by The Carpenters.
Great start, then, but it only gets better. Like Riding a Moped follows a self-confessed “fat” woman who allows a handsome man to seduce her, enjoying the ride, thrilling at the “bitch” looks from prettier, thinner women, but never allowing herself to fully fall under his spell, knowing that the man has worked his magic only for her role in the jewellery store she works security for. It’s a great character piece. She knows what she is, she works against it, sometimes fails, and tries harder for her new man. But her guard doesn’t really drop, and you hope, all the way through, she gets what she’d like.
Just when you settle in for an excellent collection, the stakes blow you through the roof. I’ve never read a short story like Agua Dulce, which burns you up as much as the California desert, with its rampaging Nazis, blazing cattle, useless junkies, and a man whose life is useless, except for the son he now seems to value as his life faces the fire shooting through this insane bit of fiction. It’s about how instinct forces you to hang on to life even when you think you’ve given it up as a bad job.
Playing Dead almost matches Agua Dulce for forcing you to hold on to something very comforting as our man survives a bathroom massacre, protected by the bodies of his friends he’s tied to in the shower, as bullets rain down on them. It’s nightmarish, makes humanity look shoddy and bleak, and is just plain ugly. But it’s brilliant.
There’s plenty more of this throughout, from the bank robbery which goes “shit, shit, shit” in Plan C, to the excellent Ad Hominem Attack about a man eavesdropping on a conversation between a pretentious student and his friend. The fart looks down his nose at his friend and argues that there is no such thing as reality; that nobody can trust words or their own senses. Our man follows the student into the night and makes him confront a sharp knife’s reality.
I zoned out a little for the last two stories, but if you love reading about lunatics, losers, and bad people doing bad things and making wrong turns, you’ll really get into this.
Great collection.