Ahh, tooth Lewis Shiner. The man who convinced me that I never want to move to Durham, gynecologist NC (the same way that Slumdog Millionaire made me not want to visit India). Born in Eugene, OR in 1950, he moved around a lot as a kid, and read science fiction and adventure novels. One of Bob Dylan’s first few “Dylan Goes Electric” concerts changed his life utterly, and he became involved in music, which would turn out to be a lifelong love and the inspiration for many of his tales. After a degree in English from SMU, he started writing more and more and although his path wasn’t straightforward (there was some technical writing in there, as well as computer programming and car trouble), eventually he was regularly selling detective fiction and science fiction to short-story magazines. His first novel, Frontera, was a finalist for a couple of major awards, and he has written five since.
This collection of short stories includes apparently 41 of his biggest and best tales, ranging from one of his first published works (“Deep Without Pity”) to three stories that had web debuts within the last couple years (“Straws,” “Golfing Vietnam,” “Fear Itself”). The tales range from a couple of punk westerns, a few pulp-type stories, straight-up science fiction, ultra-short literary fiction, a few that were intended for men’s magazines, and, of course, a few tales about rock ‘n’ roll. I won’t list all 41 titles, as that would take too much time, but interested readers can haunt the Sub Press website until they post the table of contents. This book will be published at the end of November this year.
Three of the stories are connected, as they are all about a Vietnam vet P.I. named Dan Sloane. Not many of the rest have characters that travel between stories, although there are many themes that resonate through his work. Mr. Shiner even comments in the author’s notes for a story called “Jeff Beck” that “[i]f there’s such a thing as a typical Shiner story, this is it: a magic wish that doesn’t work out; a troubled marriage; rock ‘n’ roll; and a big dose of working-class angst.” Quite often, elements from his own life story (there’s a giant autobiography on his website) show up in his stories. The story “Match” nearly happened; the main character in his novel Glimpses has a father who died the same way that Mr. Shiner’s father did. Many of his characters have unhappy marriages (he went through two), as well. One story — “Kidding Around” — is actually about someone else’s family, a writing student of his. (He obviously wrote the story with her permission.)
The last story in the book, “Lizard Men of Los Angeles,” Mr. Shiner describes (in his author’s notes on the story) as his favorite of all the stories he’s written. It’s a pulp-type story commissioned originally by Joe Lansdale, set in 1934 Los Angeles (obviously), and including Aleister Crowley, spontaneous human combustion, a stage magician and his beautiful assistant, a former child star turned ingenue, and, of course, lizard men. I loved the tone of the story; in fitting with the pulp sensibility, it was definitely tongue-in-cheek, and yet serious at the same time. I suspect that I need to read more pulp fiction, or at least the modern homages to pulp fiction. I’d really love to read more about Johnny Cairo and Mrs. Lockhart, although I doubt that any more is forthcoming.
Overall, this is an amazing collection; I would definitely recommend it for fans of his other works, and fans of short fiction such as John Crowley, Jai Claire, and even Charles de Lint, although his tone is not nearly as gentle. There’s something for nearly everyone, and while there are often violent and unpleasant events and even quite a few unlikable characters (or at least hypothetically unlikable ones), overall there’s enough to balance the novel. There’s even a children’s story, “Mark the Bunny,” which has some obvious socialist overtones, and although I wouldn’t recommend the collection as a whole for children, the story’s really hilarious for adults. 5/5 stars.