Friday, March 12, 2010

Precarious, by Al Riske

In his debut collection of short stories, author Al Riske wields remarkably spare and elegant prose in fifteen examinations of relationships on the cusp of change. Riske’s eye for detail is sharp, but his hand gentle as he unravels the complexities and quirks of his characters in their various quests for connections , closure or just plain old sex.

The very first story, ‘Sleeping with Smiley’, sets the tone of the book, with its bitter sweet tale of a boy stepping out of the shadow of his gifted best friend, even as he proves his loyalty to him. This struggle between issues of sexual awakening and faith , the emotional distance one must travel in a journey towards finding oneself – these are themes central to many of these stories, best exemplified by ‘Praying for Rain’. In this well crafted tale, winner of a Blue Mesa Review Award in 2008, a young minister grapples with loss of faith and a growing attraction to a free-spirited woman, even as a scandal rocks the parish. Bill in ‘Just Admit It’ finds himself caught between his faith and his feelings for a male friend, while Gene with his burden of Christian guilt in ‘What She Said’ struggles with desire as Rachel alternately lures, then rejects him.

A gentle humour laces Riske’s writing, as also a flair for twists in the tail, as seen in ‘Precarious’, the title story, or ‘Dance Naked’, where a barroom brawl between two men over the attentions of a woman, grows increasingly threatening, only to end with unexpected results. Riske likes to keep his reader guessing too - stories like 'Double or Nothing' and 'Taken', end in intriguing, sexually charged freeze frames.

This is also a book replete with second chances. ‘Hold On’ begins on a grim note in the desert, a place “.. full of things you can’t hold on to”, as a man faces, then thwarts, the dissolution of his marriage. The two young protagonists of ‘Praying for Rain’ fall from grace, before helping each other out towards new beginnings. And Charlie in ‘X’s’ goes through heartbreak and betrayal to reunite with the woman he was meant to have been with.

The one story I didn’t enjoy was ‘Your Eyes Only’, a piece of speculative fiction about a man seeing the world again through a dead girl’s eyes. Placed right at the end of the book – no doubt because it is so different from the stories preceding it - this one is a foray into Stephen King territory that doesn’t quite succeed.

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