REVIEWED BY ANTONIOS MALTEZOS
Where Alligators Sleep: Stories by Sheldon Lee Compton |Foxhead Books, 2014 |ISBN: 978-1-940876-08-5
There are hard drinkers, gamblers and junkies, addicts of all kinds in this flash collection but also regular folk whose problems might not seem as indomitable, at first glance. It’s easily the first impression you’ll form, that there are two classes of people at play here. I did. Is this collection about the pitiable, or is it about us? ‘Cause I’m somewhere in between, and I’d rather look up than down, so to speak. Our quick rush to judgment is no fault of the author’s, though. At our worst, we dive into a flash collection already in an agitated state, hoping for a readily apparent running theme, some promise of order because there are fifty-some odd stories to flash through yet. At our best, that’s an unnatural function for the mind. Blink. Blink. Blink. Start, stop. Start, stop. There’s no allowing for fermentation if a collection is poorly composed. And that’s how we read stories, isn’t it? We take them away with us for a while. They take us away.
But if I came to the collection with any preconceived notions about who we are, with an us versus them mentality, that I didn’t need more detail beyond my stereotypical impression of a pill popper, the noise he makes shaking the bottle to loosen the pills so they roll out easily, Sheldon soon set me straight. This is a book about us, all of us, as we are illuminated in our moments of desperation, do or die time, but without the harsh light of judgment, just Sheldon’s loving kind attention to the most intimate of details, each piece and the characters within a masterful capture as if on canvas. No doubt this author loves his people, junkies and regular folk alike. It’s in the pictures he makes, his keen eye for detail rivaled only by his good sense of which detail to use.
In “The Body Ricardo,” the rendering of two homeless men coming upon the corpse of a junkie, Sheldon proves his own personal courage and absolute devotion to the notion that every life matters and all our moments are worth noting, as we are all, essentially, caught up in the same cycle of life. And what more perfect metaphor than the maggot?
They squirmed, a single pale organ, gluttonous with newborn hunger and rippling across Ricardo’s face, the only part of his body not double wrapped in some kind of clothing.
It’s fearless writing, shining a light on that precious moment between here and there, one cycle complete, the en masse rippling of the maggots the undeniable equalizer. Makes no difference if Ricardo is a homeless junkie.
In “Somebody Take Care of Little Walter,” Sheldon models Ricky after hard drinker Little Walter, long time harp player for Muddy Waters.
So the band calls me Little Walter. “Somebody take care of Little Walter,” they’ll say, but only after I’ve dropped cue three or four times and sometimes only if I’m drooling from the side of my mouth so that it sounds like I’m blending harmony from the bottom of a flask. A gurgling and a metal echo that sticks to sound like damp rust. Lori calls me Little Walter and I pray the harp will transform into a revolver I can slide past my teeth. Really fast, really dramatic.
But it might not be the epithet Ricky wants for himself. Muddy Waters kept Little Walter alive past his relevance, paying for his funeral in the end. Ricky wants more than that. But Sheldon isn’t in the business of saving people. It’s enough he paints this portrait for us, brings some light where there was only shadow. Takes a brave writer to go scrounging for that bit of hopefulness in the scariest places, finding it even if it’s only in the beauty of his rendering, this life, this moment in solitude, illuminated so it matters.
If there’s one truth I’ve come to know as a long time reader and editor of flash fiction, it is that the best flash is pitch perfect, a symphony of words. There are no filler sentences. As soon as our interest is peaked, we double back sharply, scratch the vinyl intentionally so it skips, skips, skips, to savor the interplay of words, marvel at the music they make across our line of sight.
And we couldn’t care less who wrote it at this point because we’ve achieved, as readers, what the writer always hopes we achieve, that perfect distance from the work. The writer wants out of our view. He wants to catch us off guard from the first word, knock back whatever predispositions we might have, whatever might distract from the read. He wants us engaged from the first word, like crossing as a flood becomes a flash. We’re swept away before we even know it. And not three four words into the story, we have to double back, wonder how that first word set it all off. That’s exactly how this collection reveals itself, its brilliance, by putting us in a position where we can’t unlearn what we’ve come to know. Can’t unsee what he’s shown us to be true. His only gimmickry his love of language.
Consider this gem of a portrait from “Full House Falls, Drops a Flush: A Half-Real Memory and Just a Story,” the story of a life as if on a single canvas:
The oldest of your uncles, South Carolina we’ll call him, is a former military man, retired railroad worker and a true gambler in the sense you might say a hunter is a true shooter. He drinks beer and lights cigarette one after another. Gin blossoms make his nose and the swelled skin under his eyes a display of various abstract splatter art done in red and the gray-blue colors of bruise and scrape.
Sheldon Lee Compton, I dare say, seems like a writer committed to not look away from the hard questions. What have we done? Where are we going? Where are we now? The questions that define who we are, “sum up a life.”
In the absurd “Pitch Meeting,” where we’re privy to an idea jam for a scene in a film perhaps, Sheldon works magic capturing a life complete in as few words as possible, “no crotch shot” at birth, “just thighs and a reasonable amount of blood.” As the bam bam minutes of this life unfold in this pitch of a meeting, crashing into the inevitable end, cancer, why not, it’s decided that ghost dad will make an appearance, to offer some closure.
What will he say? What will he say. Yes, that must be considered. I’ll have my writers work on that. But it will be powerful. Perhaps only a word or two, but those words will sum up a life.
Sheldon’s writing is a gift for the editor who prays the next sub will be the one to sweep him away. It’s all very natural and comforting, like spending the afternoon bent over the lawn plucking weeds, and this feels real is all you keep saying, like salvation. From “The Son of a Man”:
Summer, Sunday morning. Arms floating towards fair heaven, stains at the pits, starch long gone, the shirt a loose skin in places, tangled to the body in others, the preacher is kinetic, wired to the rooftops, a direct line, a vessel.
The tips of a preacher’s shoes should always be worn. Always wear old shoes to service because Christ His son and the Savior walked wherever he went. Imagine the condition of his sandals. They must have lashed the ground with every step he made.
I’m particular about flash fiction collections, mostly because I’ve tried to compile one or two in my time without much success. I know how difficult it can be. It isn’t enough to say I’ve amassed a mountain of flash already, time to bundle them up. I’ve lived through that inevitable shuffling of the titles and then reshuffling when they come up meaningless, praying for a vision, some purpose. That’s the great challenge for the writer. How to engage the reader on a journey from front cover to last page. And it has to be a journey, for myself, at least, if not in a linear sense, often with section breaks like marker posts along the way, then I expect a little magic by the end, the unraveling of some great big mystery, thank you very much, or even just the sense that there is a bigger picture underlying the collection, something I can recognize and apply. Only way to do that is by engaging the reader. And Sheldon Lee Compton certainly does that, his message more like a gentle reminder of a timeless truth, one designed to better us as we move through this wonderful life.
Antonios Maltezos studied at Concordia University. He is an editor at Change Seven and former associate editor of Vestal Review. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Night Train, Smokelong Quarterly, [PANK], Foundling Review, Storyglossia, Verbsap, Dogzplot, Thieves Jargon, Slingshot Magazine, Ink Pot, Skive Magazine, Mad Hatter’s Review, Pequin, Per Contra, Story Garden, WordRiot, LITnIMAGE, Underground Voices, Cezanne’s Carrot, Pindeldyboz, Flashquake, Elimae, Eclectica, Hobart, and many other journals and mags. When he isn’t running a tavern-style kitchen near Montreal, Quebec, he is working on a collection of short fiction, Setting Fires, and a novel, A Train Runs Through Here, told entirely through flash.