Book Review : Joe Clifford - Choice Cuts (2012)

Order CHOICE CUTS here

The telephone ringing didn't wake Tom Hazuka. He wasn't asleep. He wasn't awake either. Blackouts are like that.

 There are two kinds of short story collections: those where the stories interconnect to create a fictional universe and those who are a greatest hits of an author's published shorts. CHOICE CUTS, as the title subtly hints, is the latter type. There are a few challenges in giving a fair review to these. Gathered stories collections have been written over several years and are often very different from one another. Some stories in CHOICE CUTS are so different, they don't seem to have been written by the same guy. But when Joe Clifford knocks it out of the park, he knocks it out of the park. Not every story pulsed with the quiet, understated humanity Clifford is capable of showing, but those who do will stay with you.

I always start reviewing short story collections with my favorite story of the lot. There is a high probability that TRIPPING FOR BISCUITS will find its way into my best short stories from my reading year. Not only it stands out by its lack of traditional drama, but it delves into a spontaneous, fascinating blend of magic realism, coming of age and classic hardboiled fiction. It's the story of a good-looking kid, fascinated by old detective movies, who decides to transform into a character. The second-hand narration (it's told by someone "who knew that kid") and the slow, deliberate pace add to the eeriness of that story. It's never obvious where the narrator is going. Clifford has nailed the rhythm of oral tradition in writing, which is quite a feat. Both both the content and the form of TRIPPING FOR BISCUITS are highly enjoyable.

Not every stories were a success. At least, not to me. RAGS TO RICHES has often been quoted as one of the anthologies' best, was, I thought, flat and telegraphed. It seemed to exist only for its ending, bringing interesting variables that would've requires more time to develop (like that reality show for hobos) and I thought the narrator's voice was cliché. But that's the only story that openly bugged me. One out of sixteen isn't so bad. UNPUBLISHED MANUSCRIPT #36 had a great, peculiar atmosphere, but it felt like a stunted segment more than a story. These are the two first stories in the collection, though, so it keeps getting better as you go along. So let's get back to the highlights of CHOICE CUTS.

"We don't have copperheads in Arizona. It's just a name. Like Dead Man's Curve."


Emily took his hand. "You ever think maybe this why I broke up with you?"

"Because I don't wanna play Moses with your new boyfriend?"

RED PISTACHIOS has a very similar form to RAGS TO RICHES, but I thought was way more successful. The characters had stronger identities, the use of irony heightened the purpose and the ending a lot less predictable. That truly was an Hitchcockian ending. NIX VERRIDA also had a throwback feeling to it, and pinpoint accurate portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder. Loved how Clifford made his protagonist crazy about electric trains, which is a universe he can control. The juxtaposition of his life crumbling and his moments of solitude carried the point across with great strength. ONE GOOD REASON was short, but carried the spirit of what Joe Clifford does best, seeking the humanity and the beauty out of unlikely targets. It was my favorite story after TRIPPING FOR BISCUITS, for its sheer emotional precision.

CHOICE CUTS is a good time. It does what gathered stories collection don't often do and highlights the evolution of a writer. By the end of it, you can tell Joe Clifford has lived quite a bit, because he can discern complex, wordless emotions and give them life on a page, through poignant, evocative images. There were three, maybe four stories that weren't necessary, only one I openly disliked, but CHOICE CUTS is solid overall. Clifford's prose is lean, almost disembodied. You will find very little atmospheric details in the narration, which affects the reader in its own way, heightens the isolation and alienation of his protagonists. Joe Clifford is a unique writer, a scribe for broken souls who knows a lot about the human heart. Pick up CHOICE CUTS, because it gets more intoxicating as you read.



I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes you think you see where the story is going, but Joe Clifford is always a step or two ahead of you. The characters are economically drawn but have surprising depth -- although their worlds are extremely dark, there are moments of great emotional subtlety. Clifford is a writer of tremendous energy and precision who always knows where he is going.