flash fiction book review

Distance Traveled by Michael Chin

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By Charles Rammelkamp

Michael Chin’s Distance Traveled is a touching series of vignettes – flash pieces, meditations – that ultimately address, in an understated way, a first-love break-up between a man and a woman, and in measuring the distance that that relationship travels, the stories also shine a light on the fantasies and obsessions that can dominate us all our lives, out of which we sometimes (often) grow – or travel beyond.

Most of the nineteen stories that make up Distance Traveled involve the narrator and his childhood buddy Vinnie, growing up in a town in upstate New York (Chin grew up in Utica), obsessively following NBA teams in the context of their turbulent junior high school lives. But the first two (“History” and “I Believed in Magic”) and the last two (“Sea Level” and “Hall of Fame”) that frame the collection are told when the narrator is well into his thirties.  While also couching larger issues in terms of basketball, they address the heartbreak and disillusionment that inevitably come with adulthood. The chunk of fifteen stories in between set us up for all the real-life joy and misery that the game of basketball involves for the fans who follow the teams and the players, who learn to refer to teams in terms of “we” and “our” and “us.”

For certain basketball fans, too, the period of Chin’s fandom as a teenager evokes real nostalgia for the game, its drama and melodrama, as it was played in the last decade of the twentieth century, with “Magic” and “Larry” and “Michael” and “Shaq” and “Kobe” and all the others we first-named as if we knew them. There are stories about Patrick Ewing and Jeff Van Gundy, Muggsy Bogues and Latrell Sprewell, all with grave moral applications to the lives of teenage boys. And George Mikan? Does that name ring a bell?

Indeed, Chin’s collection provides a fresh take on the old saw that sports is a metaphor for life.  As the narrator notes in “The New York Knicks, 1994,” in which the beloved home team (“the Knicks – the team based Downstate, but the jersey said New York, no City, so we could still claim them.”) loses the championship in the seventh game of the finals to the Houston Rockets: “And I discovered that magical thing about the game. That win or lose it went on.  No permanent victories or defeats, just the ones you let stick to you, the ones that rolled off.”

But while this collection may ultimately be about the narrator and Claudia, the girl who leaves him for another guy, it’s the narrator and his buddy Vinnie as young teens who really touch the reader’s heart.  The narrator and Vinnie are obsessed with basketball. It’s the ultimate basis of their friendship; it’s what they bond over, and not just the hero-worship. They admire the acrobatics, the strategy, the work ethic. They learn about the point spread from the narrator’s father and apply the principle to their nascent love lives. They bond over the triangle offense, brainchild of Phil Jackson. As Knick fans, they loathe Reggie Miller, the Indiana Pacers’ three-point artist (“Everybody Hates Reggie Miller”). And yet, reflecting on Miller’s childhood when he wore leg braces because his hips were out of place, and all the obstacles the future star would have to overcome, the narrator observes that it’s easier to be a victim – a role Miller did not adopt – than to be a villain. (In an act of will, the narrator resists “adding fucking before or between Reggie and Miller.”)  The villain, after all, is a celebrity, part of the sports pantheon of gods. Think Loki. Think Beelzebub.

Possibly the most amusing and endearing instance of the boys’ innocence comes in the story, “A Piece of the Man,” which focuses on Dennis Rodman. You remember Dennis, the original American diplomat to visit Kim Jong Un, years before Donald Trump. “Tattoos and neon hair. Number ninety-one because those were the first two digits people dial in case of emergency.” The boys are trading sports cards. The narrator offers Vinnie a Glen Rice rookie card and a Fleer Scottie Pippen for Vinnie’s Rodman card. “I already knew he’d say no.”  While they dicker over the cards, the narrator tells Vinnie that Rodman had dated Madonna. “You think he kissed her?” Vinnie asks innocently. The narrator tells him the truth about Dennis Rodman and Madonna. “Vinnie was at that fulcrum age, both naïve and instinctually inclined to want to put his dick in anything that moved.” It’s almost as if the narrator has had to tell Vinnie there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.

A natural storyteller, Chin’s narrative voice is wise and confidential, unafraid to acknowledge vulnerabilities and weaknesses. He sucks you in with his casual references to the dysfunctional family life that basketball seemingly saves him from.  But there’s not a trace of self-pity in Distances Traveled. Just as Reggie Miller had to fight for everything he had, the narrator confides, “I can relate. We all think we can, right? It’s easy to play the victim.” Chin, too, refuses to play the victim. Instead, he simply moves on – “that magical thing about the game.” Win or lose, life just goes on.

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You can find the book here:

https://bentwindow.com/books/distancetraveled/

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.

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A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas

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By Charles Rammelkamp

“In those years I still believed in magic,” the schoolgirl narrator of the story “Bulldog” tells us after she has been informed by the boys in the schoolyard “no girls allowed” when she tries to participate in a game of handball. That night she dreams about her transformative powers. The stories in Nicole Rivas’ collection, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, winner of the 2018 Rose Metal Press flash fiction chapbook contest, brim with magic as young women cope with their powerlessness in the face of the abracadabra of love and ambition. So often, the magic lies in the contradictory pull of toughness and tenderness, as if the collision of the opposites creates a spell all its own. Emblematic of these opposing impulses is the image that concludes the story, “The Butcher,” in which the girl protagonist takes on her father’s butcher job. She routinely brings scraps of meat to the feral cats in her neighborhood. “…the cats slip and turn around her calves like warm and eager lovers, ready to strip the butcher of everything she has to offer them.” There is so much violence implicit in this image, yet so much affection.

Or again, take the conclusion of the story, “The Comedienne” (note that Rivas uses the obsolete term to identify a female comic), a story in which a young woman is effectively ostracized from a party after she makes a crude joke; she accidentally breaks her mimosa glass on the handrail going out, getting shards of glass stuck in her palm. Rivas writes about the pieces of glass that Sam, the protagonist, has removed from her hand, “If she arranged them one way, they looked like a dagger. If she arranged them another way, they looked like a halo.” Murderer or angel, sinner or saint?

And yet another example of this DNA-coiling of the yin and the yang, comes at the end of the story, “The Woman on the Bus,” when the narrator observes, “Though you know it’s unwise, you will continue to love and hate him until you can no longer tell the difference between the two.” In this story, the protagonist, “you,” is a young woman on a date with a man who clearly annoys her. Yet when he gets food caught in his throat and she has to perform the Heimlich maneuver to save his life, she speaks to him “in the soothing voice of a mother.” The woman is taken by surprise to hear herself, “the way it leaps out of your throat like a warm blanket.”

In all twelve of the stories that make up A Bright and Pleading Dagger these same contradictions are at play (or war), and the result is magic. “Gretel’s Escape,” which plays on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, may be the most magical of all. In this version of the story, the brother and sister are – surprise! – lost in a deep dark forest and they come upon a ruin. Sound familiar? Only, Gretel discovers a charred hardback (it’s apparently Grimm’s Fairy Tales) in which she reads about her brother and her being duped by a witch in a candy house. The witch tries to eat them, they get away, a lesson is learned, blah blah blah. Gretel’s reaction? “She was tired of being simultaneously lost and bound to fate.”  She tries to ditch her brother, but she’s ultimately resigned to her fate. The story ends: “Gretel exhaled sadly, knowing Hansel would find her again, once upon a time.”  Once upon a time. The love and the resentment are both so nakedly apparent.

Indeed, the fairy tale, with its implicit magic and its didactic moral message is the perfect genre by which to understand Rivas’ flash fictions, except that she turns it on its head: there is no moral; there is no bright distinction between “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “bad.” There is savage and there is compassionate, there is violent and there is kind, but they are never separate, only barely distinguishable.

These are all stories about girls navigating through some bizarre #Metoo world, at once victims and agents of their own fate. The teenage girls in the title story are picked up by some older hillbillies in a truck near Savannah. We don’t know what happens to one of the girls, Jada, who wanders off with one of the men when they park in a field miles from town, except that she’s apparently uninjured, but the unnamed narrator is sitting in the truck with her guy who masturbates while talking to her about scifi thrillers. Gross. Jada meanwhile quits her job and the narrator never sees her again. In the story, “Death of an Ortolan,” the young narrator is drawn into a relationship with Penny, her gynecologist, a woman more than twice her age.  How can this not be exploitative?  But the narrator seems to know what she’s doing.

The magic and the just plain weird aspects of these stories (In “The Staring Contest” a young woman speed dates – and falls in love with – “the oldest man in the world,” who dies sitting across from her) add up to a dark humor that takes the edge off the savage undercurrents, but the sheer menace just around the corner makes these stories extremely potent.  This is a collection you will read straight through.

You can find the book here:

https://rosemetalpress.com/books/a-bright-and-pleading-dagger/

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press.