BY ROBERT COOPERMAN
[This collection of exemplary short fiction is a C4 Great Read.]
Author: Patrick Michael Finn
2011, Black Lawrence Press
Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories
Patrick Michael Finn’s award-winning second story collection, From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet, depicts the grim industrial nightmare and post-industrial hell of Joliet, Illinois. Think of Dante’s Inferno and Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” shuffled together and you begin to get a picture of just how grim this world is, and how pitilessly Finn depicts it, while still making us care about these characters stuck in their blighted urban Ninth Circle of Hell. But when the damned are stuck in hell together, they do hellish things to each other, and nothing namby-pamby like the infernal and eternal talkers of Sartre’s No Exit. No, these are all-American sinners, who take no prisoners, and have no pity for themselves, so why should they have any for their victims?
So in the course of the opening story, “Smokestack Polka,” a kid whose father has died of a heart attack on his walk home from his job at the Joliet railyards tries to kill the loathsome wife- beating thug who tries to put the moves on his mother, six months after his father’s death, at his cousin Reenie’s wedding. The brick the unnamed narrator on the roof hurls down at Tomczak barely misses its target, and Tomczak takes the incident for an accident and concludes the story with, “But let’s get the hell out of here. This fucking place is falling apart,” which, whether Tomczak realizes it or not, pretty much describes all the lives depicted in this powerful collection.
In the title story, “From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet,” Finn picks up this brick imagery, but uses it to describe the rats that another unnamed, almost teenaged narrator finds in his house, especially after their rat killing dog has died: “They were bigger than bricks and moved like blunt lengths of gray pipe on four legs…” To the narrator’s growing frustration and horror, however, his parents are perpetually too drunk to even notice the infestation. Well, infestation might be a little tame for this vermin invasion. As in many of these stories, however, the narrator exacts a terrifying, and terrifyingly funny, revenge on his parents’ fog of inebriation. I won’t spoil the pay-off, but it would not be out of place in a Poe story, only a lot grosser.
But Finn is just getting warmed up. “Shitty Sheila” is a character study of a doomed woman who escapes a glitter factory in Paducah, KY, only to end up as an exotic dancer in Joliet, until she loses that less than rewarding job to drugs, drink, and a vile man; and then things get really bad. But “For the Sake of His Sorrowful Passion” is both the lowest that Finn allows his characters to sink and at the same time, offers a glimpse of hope at its conclusion. Another hapless teenage (Louis) protagonist lives in a foster home run by an immensely hypocritical woman, and attends a Catholic high school. But he, along with some other students, are so inept at sports and thus despised, they’re told not to bother participating during gym classes, so they hang out in the locker room, where the other sports-phobic boys, one in particular (who is repulsively described as “the dandruff eater”), force him to fellate them and whose body serves as a dart board for their ejaculations, which half excites and half revolts him. Of course they’re found out, but the protagonist, being an orphan, is blamed for the incidents and the only one tossed out of the school. He’s further betrayed by the woman who runs the orphan house, and exacts a brutal vengeance on her and on the hideous man who has made fun of him throughout the story. Strangely, however, and satisfyingly, Louis finds a home of sorts by story’s end.
Finn’s writing is a marvel in all these stories. He has the knack for a telling image (“By the time he turned twenty, Ray Dwyer looked like a movie gangster’s bodyguard.”—“Where Beautiful Ladies Dance for You”), but also the true artist’s ability to have his characters string soul denigrating insults at their defeated victims on a scale that Homer’s heroes, gloating over the enemies they’ve just slain in battle, might envy. So an old drunk monster named Hudak hurls these imprecations at poor Louis, who is trying to run away on a “boat” he found: “‘What is our Fairy-Mary Louise up to out here? What does our Miss Pussymoist have here so early?’” Needless to say, Hudak gets his too.
Terrible things are done to and by terrible people in these stories. Finn sometimes piles the horrors on so heavily, it’s hard slogging to keep reading. More than a few times I felt like I did as a kid, while watching a horror movie, staring in repulsed fascination and turning away at the really gruesome and scary parts. But Finn rewards a strong stomach. He portrays characters blighted not just by urban blight but by their own severely circumscribed lives and life-chances. Most of them are content to get drunk most nights and laid on Saturday night. And one young very nasty thug shows a surprisingly tender side, in his love for his tropical fish collection. A couple of characters escape, if only into the mercy of death or their dreams, and one or two actually make it out in one piece, but Joliet is forever seared into their hearts and souls. As it will be in yours, if you dare enter this dread jungle.
Similar Reads: Alien Nation, Alan Catlin (Poetry); What Work Is, Philip Levine (Poetry); Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby, Jr.; Mohawk, Nobody’s Fool, and The Risk Pool, Richard Russo