Full Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Inspired Quill, with whom I have a working relationship; however, I was not in any way involved in the editing, publishing, marketing, proofing, or submission review process for this book. In fact, I only received a copy because the editor-in-chief mentioned that this writer comes recommended by Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is a favorite writer of mine, so she thought I might like to take a look.
The collection is made up of seventeen short stories of varying length, some of which deal with the same characters and all of which deal with the same general region (southwestern United States / southern California) and the same type of people (struggling poor/working-class ethnic and sexual minorities). Most of the stories are incredibly interesting and well-written. There were a few stories in the bunch which did sometimes feel stressed or project-like, reminding me a bit of a bad hair day (not that the stories were bad, but that one starts with a good head of hair and, no matter how you tease it, yank it, or play with it, it just will not do what you want it to do). That being said, these few stressed stories were definitely the exception, not the rule. In fact, I wrote a ranking next to each story in the index (Poor, Good, Very Good, Great) and of the seventeen stories, only two were anything other than Good.
What struck me first about the writing is the narrative voice. It is distinct, commanding, and engaging. The first story, “The Giant Rubber Gorilla,” opens the collection with a perfect sense of what is to come. The reader quickly recognizes these people who will be explored, the situations that might be examined, and the tone which can be expected throughout. Similarly, the collection closes with “Dandruff as Tall as Donald Duck,” which, in conjunction with the lengthier story which immediately preceded it, was a great way of wrapping-up the collection, reminding the reader of its major themes and the general determination of these people to survive, despite the perpetual road blocks placed in their way.
Some of the stories went even beyond good story telling. “Mother’s Tongue” and “Secrets of the Days and Nights,” for example, were stand-outs in their creative approach and in the slight inkling toward hopefulness they emulated, which is not an overarching theme in this collection. The stories work together the way a great fashion show should: The collection has a primary theme, it starts with bang, and then has its lulls and explosions throughout, and finally ends with a reminder of what the collection was all about, leaving the memory of it strong in the mind. Each story, like each piece in a fashion collection, simultaneously stands on its own and fits into the larger theme of the work. In this case, the theme is a restless disappointment among a class of people on the margins. There is a small, flickering light of hope that blinks throughout, meek but ever-present.
My personal favorites were the stories about Duffy and her family. They were the most powerful and seemed to work almost like the back-bone of the collection. It would be very interesting to see Duffy and the others in her life appearing again in future collections.
With this first collection, Runyon is following in the tradition of the great regional American writers. Flannery O’Connor, John Fante, Bret Harte, and Sinclair Lewis all wrote stories about a particular group of people in a particular region of the United States, and their stories stayed true to the people and their particular plights and successes. The triumph of their stories was due in part to the writers’ craftsmanship and vision, but also to the honesty of the narrative which grounded the fictive worlds deeply in reality.
If Runyon continues to write about this world and these people, we might be witnessing the start of a very special body of work. E.J. Runyon is a new writer to watch, and I applaud Inspired Quill for recognizing this talent and taking a chance on sharing it with the world.