By Timothy J. Bazzett on October 11, 2018
First things first: every one of these stories is first class fiction, and I loved ’em all. It is such a pity that short story collections are such a hard sell in the book industry, because these stories are WORTH READING and WORTH YOUR TIME!
I first discovered John Mort’s work about five years ago when I picked up a used copy of his first novel, SOLDIER IN PARADISE (SMU Press, 1999). Although I was late in finding it, I was blown away by the book. Since then I’ve read a couple more Mort books (GOAT BOY OF THE OZARKS and THE ILLEGAL), both very good. And now I’ve read the latest, DOWN ALONG THE PINEY: OZARKS STORIES (his fourth short story collection), and, as I’ve already indicated, every story in it is simply superb, and I was hooked from the first page. “Pitchblende” gives us “the Colonel,” a crazed Korean War veteran, bulldozing a Missouri mountain top in a futile search for uranium while his family disintegrates around him. The story’s narrator is his son, Michael, looking back years later, at memories of shooting rats at the local landfill, his mother going back to school and gradually drifting away, and his own wonder and puzzlement at having survived his tour in Vietnam, where several of his high school classmates died –
“I was a warrant officer. I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and i was never touched.”
And then there is “The Hog Whisperer,” in which Mort gives us Carrie Kreider, an autistic “backward, and unusually large, country girl,” who “was gifted, it turned out,” and won a full scholarship to Kansas State, where her master’s thesis was “on how containment hog operations could be more humane.” A huge Texas farm conglomerate hires her to research how to “make hog s**t smell sweet.” There’s more, of course, as Carrie tries to negotiate the pitfalls of men’s cruelty and the mysteries of falling in love. It’s simply a lovely little story in which Mort might have been channeling the inner life of Temple Grandin.
“Red Rock Valley” makes a sharp turn into the inner life of a lonely homosexual, his partner long gone, succumbed to AIDS, as he returns home, where his father is dying. Robert ‘Killer’ Coogan is the emotionally damaged veteran in “Behind Enemy Lines,” living on a river island in an old school bus with a wolf as his only companion. Bad teeth force him out of his isolation to a VA hospital, where he discovers, as one of his companions calls it, “Money for nothing … Good as it gets.”
“The Book Club” explores the lives of a sect of women outcasts, ex-cons, unfit mothers and misfits, with murmurs of Shirley Jackson’s classic story, “The Lottery.” And “Mariposa” gives us an intimate look into the tough times of a migrant worker family, forced to return to Mexico, as seen through the eyes of a teen daughter, U.S. born, who cannot adjust.
But of the thirteen stories presented here, the centerpiece – and the longest, at fifty pages – is unquestionably “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him,” a look inside a Jim Jones-like, utopian, wilderness Ozarks community of assorted evangelicals, militant survivalists, crazies and hangers-on founded by a retired army sergeant known only as “Top.” The toxic mix of guns, religion and fanatacism come to a boil and erupt in murder and the stalking of a political candidate with a shady, criminal past. This is a story that has immediate relevance in our country’s current atmosphere of hate and division. Mort has peopled it with very believable and human characters, especially young Birdy Blevins, a former drug addict ‘rescued’ by Top, who becomes, first, an emaciated Christ-figure in a Passion Play tableau put on for tourists in the New Jerusalem settlement, and, finally, the cop-killing “Jesus Boy,” the object of an interstate man-hunt.
John Mort is at the top of his game with these latest stories. I’ll say it again. I loved every one of them. My very highest recommendation.
– Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER