House of Vlad / September 2023 / 220 pages
You just got a new book to read, Tex Gresham’s short story collection Violent Candy and you’re excited to start it. Maybe you’ve read some of Gresham’s previous work, maybe you haven’t. Maybe you have some specific expectations about what this will be, maybe some vague ideas. But when you finally get a chance to sit down and open it up, it’s something entirely different.
The first story has Gresham addressing you directly, telling you about his own stylistic choices as he’s simultaneously describing a bloody hospital scene. There’s a head wound, bloody gauze, but you aren’t reading about this from a distance. Gresham places you there in the hospital room, where the woman wrapped in gauze “will look at you the same way she’s looking at the doctors.” You’re in it now.
You’re trapped in the text, trapped in Tex’s second person stories. You won’t find your way out until you reach a first person point of view in the fourth story, though second person perspective will return later on. And in between the cover of the book and the fourth story, you find yourself unable to stop a shooting, you lose a child in Disneyland, and you plant a tree with your mother who, while perhaps not physically abusive, is certainly exceedingly emotionally cold.
While any single story in this collection could serve as the thesis statement for the whole, you find yourself fixated on the second story, “It’s a Small World.” You’re still in the text at this point, the events you’re reading about are happening to you. You are told explicitly that you’re losing your child, but you have a sick feeling that your child hasn’t gone anywhere. What you’re actually losing is your mind. You are someone either wrapped up in lazy conspiracy theorizing about an omnipotent illuminati bent on stealing kids, or you’re someone who watches too much television news, but what’s the difference?
“It’s a Small World” ends with a perfect metaphor for the inevitable advance of the American empire at the expense of each new generation. Or maybe it’s something beyond the American empire, maybe that’s just a secondary symbol you’ve attached to something even more inevitable. Some unyielding force that has us all in its grasp, something that won’t let us go until it’s wrung everything it can from our used up bodies. Or maybe you just haven’t been able to extricate yourself from the perspective advanced in the stories in Violent Candy.
You have noticed a glaring through-line in each story in this collection. What you find in these pages are characters caught up in the inexorable unfolding of fate. Children who desperately don’t want to end like their parents, priests who don’t want to end up in hell, people who need to see themselves as more noble than those they surround themselves with. What is common to each of these characters is that they never get their wish. Each one fights desperately against what they know will win in the end. Each finds themself in a situation beyond their control, going downhill fast.
This is a devastating and bleak collection, but you can’t bring yourself to look away. While this book is obsessed with inescapable repetition, each story paradoxically brings this theme out in singular circumstances. Each new story is so vividly described and feels so real even through the occasional veering into the supernatural. It’s hard for you to say this was a joy to read, but it certainly was a pleasure.
There’s even a moment in the very last story, a sort of gift to you for finding your way through descriptions of some of the worst experiences of people’s lives, where it’s made clear why you’ve made it this far. A father and son find a brief moment of connection over a shared traumatic experience. You realize that’s what you were getting out of this all along. You were finding a sense of connection by reading about these cases of trauma. You’re trapped in fate just like these characters are, and sharing in their stories reminds you you’re not alone. This reminder of being in it together is not only how you got this far through this overwhelming book, it’s how you have gotten through life, and you suspect others might feel the same.