The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

April 17, 2010

21 Tales by Dave Zeltserman

The creative gulf between writing a good novel and a good short story is one not always easily bridged, even by some very fine novelists and short story writers. That gulf is never more apparent to me than when I pick up an anthology and go directly to a story by a favorite novelist, read it, and my reaction is: meh. It doesn't always happen that way, of course. But it happens just often enough for me to acknowledge the varied skill sets demanded by long and short form fiction.

And then sometimes a writer comes along who shrinks that gulf to a drywash. A writer like Dave Zeltserman. A while back I read one of his short stories, Nothing But Jerks at Pulp Pusher, and I thought, wow, that's a quality short story.

Turns out Dave Z has a whole raft of short stories, many of them written between 1996 - 2006. Some of these stories appeared in quality webzines (e.g. Thuglit, Mysterical-E, et al) and some in the rather better known print mags, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Now these stories have been collected into a volume called 21 Tales, available now as an e-book at Smashwords and the amazon Kindle store, and later this year in paperback from New Pulp Press.

Any one of these stories, taken on its own, will delight fans of the surprising twist and audacious plot turn. Taken altogether, these stories reveal a breadth of imagination and a wicked sense of humor so neatly wrapped in reality that, yes, I found myself wondering whether Mrs. Zeltserman knows what her husband is plotting behind her back.

I focus on Mrs. Z, because the collection is broken into sections, one of which Dave claims is "bogusly autobiographical." This is the Life in Writer's Hell section, about a frustrated writer. Good things do not happen to the women involved with this fictional writer, whose frustrations are so very true to the writing life. My favorite of these stories is She Stole My Fortune!, which recounts the events stemming from a stolen fortune cookie. The author displays a sharp awareness of America's inability to distinguish notoriety from celebrity, but he also understands the cheerful exuberance of a writer who finally gets published, no matter the cost. The other two stories in this section, More Than a Scam and Flies, will first make the reader grin (especially those of us who've been on the receiving end of those Nigerian scam e-mails) and then, like me, wonder just how healthy Mrs. Zeltserman is these days. I don't think we can just take Dave's word at face value on this matter.

Another section of stories is simply labeled Weird. This is a set of five stories that surprise the reader with the appearance of anything from demons to trolls to 3D holograms. No question but my favorite in this section is the quirky Dave Stevens, I Presume?, in which a staid traveling salesman must deal with the fallout of his charming doppelganger's philandering ways. After years of being misidentified, being slapped and having drinks thrown in his face by angry women, what might happen if this salesman decided to stop denying who he was and be the man he was mistaken for?

A much more chilling tale is View from the Mirador. Zeltserman himself notes that this may be "one of the sickest" stories he's written. One of? No, Dave. The. Drop the qualifier. And this slick, sick story about a man who spends his days watching the cliff divers in Acapulco in the hope of seeing one of them die, never even gets overtly graphic or attempts to gross out the reader. The chill factor is increased because the reader is  readily able to believe that there really are people so vile, so lacking in humanity, and so bored, that this is how they could spend their time.

In the Hardboiled section is a pair of stories about con man Pete Mitchel. In Money Run, Pete is on the down-and-out when he gets a job to deliver a package. The simple job quickly spins into cross, double-cross, and cross and cross again. It isn't often that story labeled as 'hardboiled' can leave me grinning. Man Friday is a follow-up story, with Pete now reduced to sleeping on a park bench until he wangles a job with an affluent couple who wish each other dead. Mitchel is an ingratiating character, completely unable to be true to his word, and one I wouldn't mind seeing appear in a longer format.

Three stories are held together by a character named Manny Vassey, a mobster that readers of Small Crimes may remember. These stories involve a younger but just as deadly Manny, locked in the throes of his favorite pastime: cutting people into small pieces. Manny's appearance is a brief coup de grace (if you will forgive the pun) in Triple Cross, a tale of murderous triplets with a psychic link. The nasty story about an invalid mobster whose "friends" don't call, Nothing But Jerks, also appears in this section.
The last section is Brutal. The author could not have found a more apt name as these stories focus on characters with the same destructive DNA as the protagonists in Zeltserman's 'man out of prison' trilogy. In Adrenaline, four thugs have a comrade bound and tortured. The poor guy hasn't a hope of rescue. But the comrade has a weapon his four friends don't: a brain. And he knows how to use it, suffering through bouts of torture while planning his psychological manipulation, the author creates an ending both resolute in one respect and creepily irresolute in another.

Fans of the macabre, the hardboiled, the sly twist and the devious mind, are certain to enjoy this collection of stories. I know Zeltserman is primarily focused on writing novels these days, but a talent and skill for short form crime fiction like his should not be allowed to rust. I'm just saying, Mr. Z.  Please don't send Manny Vassey to pay me a visit.

Readers can find samples from this book at Smashwords in several formats (including Kindle, pdf, palm, LRF, and several more) and get the entire e-book for only $1.49. That's an incredible reading value. What are you waiting for?