Book Review : Fast Women and Neon Lights (2016)
The eighties probably were the greatest time to be alive on this Earth. The economy had just been deregulated by the Reagan administration, so everybody prospered and no one was suffering yet. There was money, booze, drugs, techno music and no social feeds for people to spy on one another. It revealed to be ephemeral like every good thing but people never could shut up about the eighties since the early nineties rise of grunge music declared its funeral. Fast Women and Neon Lights is an eighties-themed anthology of "neon noir" edited by Michael Pool which, like all nostalgic art, has the ambition to revive this blessed era for an ephemeral moment. Does it? Maybe not for the complete lengths of its two hundred-something pages, but it did bring me back for an instant or two.
My favorite story in Fast Women and Neon Lights was Eryk Pruitt's It's Morning Again in Lake Castor, which probably is my favorite story I've read all year *. It is a first person-narrated piece which recollects the murder of a young woman from a loosely implicated perpetrator's point of view. Not only Pruitt's story shows impeccable storytelling technique, it also understands the paradigm of the eighties very well. It's Morning Again in Lake Castor is set in an unconnected, rural world where stories traveled through hearsay and gossip, which made me perversely long for the candor of this era again. Everything was simpler back then. You could tell people what you wanted and they had to take it or leave it. I've reviewed Eryk Pruitt before and he's getting noticeably better each time.
Other stories I've enjoyed in Fast Women and Neon Lights were: Kat Richardson's opener Valley Girl, where an argument between two superficial girls take a tragic turn; Sam Wiebe's Parts Unknown, set in the long-forgotten pre-WWE circuit era pro wrestling world; Michael Pool's Night Thief, where a body in the protagonist's stolen camaro's trunk takes a life of its own and Will Viharo's trippy, metafictional Meantime, which I thought understood the superficiality of the eighties better than most stories in Fast Women and Neon Lights. What do these stories have in common? They each show profound understanding of one aspect of the eighties, respectively: individualism, disposable entertainment, greed and relationship to iconic culture. These stories, along with Eryk Pruitt's brilliant It's Morning Again in Lake Castor really turned back the clock for me.
That said, it would've been extremely surprising if Fast Women and Neon Lights avoided any easy and gimmicky throwbacks and, of course, it doesn't. There are a handful of paint-by-numbers crime stories in the anthology, where A Flock of Seagulls and Terence Trent D'Arby happen to play on the radio a lot. I'm not going to pinpoint any stories who did this because I know better than to condemn a writer based on a freakin' short story, but all the hairspray and the neon colored clothes cannot save your story if it is fundamentally unoriginal. That's why Fast Women and Neon Lights was such an ambitious bet to begin with. Nostalgia doesn't always come with a context and it's easy to fall in love with hilarious memories and staple them on lifeless material. If Fast Women and Neon Lights highlighted anything, it's that some of its authors have TREMENDOUS narrative command and others are merely finding their voice.
Fast Women and Neon Lights is, overall, a good short story anthology. It isn't transcendent by any means and it is uneven like most anthologies and collections are, but it features tremendous talents like Eryk Pruitt, Kat Richardson, Sam Wiebe, Michael Pool, the ineffable Will Viharo and others that did good without capturing my imagination as vividly such as S.W Lauden, Patrick Cooper and Sarah M. Chen. There are hits and misses, but the hits are worth the price of admission alone. If you weren't familiar with Eryk Pruitt in particular, his third novel is coming out next year and his story is the only primer you need to get acquainted with this special talent. Nostalgia entertainment is easy to find in this day and age, but Fast Women and Neon Lights goes the extra mile in that regards and makes you relive this glorious and foregone era with more intensity than whatever's on the market.
* Along Laird Barron's Old Virginia and Termination Dust.