Vanessa Blakeslee’s short story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press, 2014), gives you a little pause. True to the title, the breaths between stories are like the pauses in between downing shots.
Blakeslee is not afraid to end things on a suspenseful note, and I still find myself wondering about the fates of some of the characters. For example, Layla in “Barbecue Rabbit” kept me up at night, wondering about her and her unhappy, psychopathic son, Ethan. The ending gives such a rush. Without spoilers, let’s just say I wonder how many people wind up getting listed in the police report. It is rare to find an author who creates characters that stay with you so vividly once the book is closed.
Many of the stories are set in a lush, humid Florida; there was a lot of heat in these narratives, whether from a character lighting up a cigarette or basking under “the sunshine and clear sky of February, the palm trees rustling overhead and shiny as copper.” The heat is also internal: the burning of vodka in the throat as the character of the Princess of Pop drains another cocktail in her hotel room. “Princess of Pop” is a haunting glance into the inner life of a girl who rocketed to fame too quickly and is now down on her luck. Britney Spears comes to mind, but the character stands on her own. I felt hounded by the paparazzi, paralyzed when I saw her write a note to her estranged sons.
“Welcome, Lost Dogs” is an especially well-crafted piece: Blakeslee lets the first-person narrator shine in the hunt for el perro d’oro, loosely translated as “the golden dog,” is a rescue who vanishes under mysterious circumstances. During her search for the yellow Labrador, the narrator is thrust into so many places: dangerous neighborhoods, the grim homesteads of Nicaraguan subsistence farmers, and the especially harrowing setting of her own past. Blakeslee sketches a bittersweet memory with art: “I remembered our good-bye: my soon-to-be ex-husband kissing the delicate leaves of his cilantro, breathing in the last of their aroma, embracing the maids one by one, then our son, before pressing his trembling lips hard against mine.” Can’t you smell the fragrance of the cilantro? I felt as if I were part of their lives, for only a fleeting moment. Blakeslee’s work simply transports you.
The author takes all these troubled souls and makes us see something sympathetic, almost beautiful, in many of them. She has a way of crystallizing individual moments, making you feel as if you are there, making your heart throb with pain. You will not run into the same type of character twice as you read the collection. The author has one startling similarity between nearly all the characters, though: moments are all they’ve got, and boy, can Blakeslee make you stop to appreciate the moment that character is experiencing.
You won’t always like what you feel any more than Blakeslee’s troubled characters like their straits. But you will feel, whether it’s the embarrassment of a hard-to-dislodge sponge, or the festering fear your lover has strayed, or the simple flush that warms your skin right before a sunburn sets in. While reading this collection; keep a drink handy, and toast to the lost dogs—and people—of the world.
Mariann Grantham D’Arcangelis is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Master of Arts in Literature from the Florida State University, where she did everything from broadcasting radio news to reading for the Southeast Review. Based in Tallahassee, Florida, she loves urban fantasy, Tupelo honey, and all things feline. Her forthcoming book, Eat Less, Get More, is coming out in fall of 2015 through Foo Dog Press.
Vanessa Blakeslee‘s debut short story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) is the winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. The book was also long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and has been optioned for a feature film by producer/director Hannah Beth King. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Finalist for the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud, is scheduled for release by Curbside Splendor Publishing in October, 2015.