A Report Card on My Stories

If you’re thinking about reading any of my short stories or purchasing one of my books on Amazon.com, here’s something you might find useful: my own assessment of the merits of individual works, graded from A through F, where A++ would be Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy or The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and F– would be Angels & Demons by Mark Brown or Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  I’m not going to apologize for not giving myself any F’s, even though certain of the works didn’t turn out as I had intended or hoped, nor for giving myself some A’s.  I tried to be as honest as I could in my self-assessment, and, truly, I wouldn’t ask people to read them if I didn’t think the pieces were worthy of their time.

Whether you ultimately agree or not will be up to you, and I hope you’re intrigued enough to give some of the pieces a try. I will acknowledge that I am very confused when trying to evaluate my own work. My story “The Unforgiving Hand,” as you’ll see, turned out nothing like what I intended and I was a bit embarrassed by the finished product; yet, it attracted high praise from a published professor and some high praise, despite a rejection welcoming more of my work, when I submitted it to Atlantic Monthly. I think my novel Leviathan’s Scales is really pretty good, but I’ll be damned if I can get a prospective print publisher to see its potential. So, see what you think. Here’s what I think:

Leviathan’s Scales – B+

I recognize that there are a few areas where the writing is a bit naive, and the story would be enhanced with substantially deeper character development. But this first effort at a novel-length manuscript explores a wide range of sub-themes while remaining ever true to its main topic of examination, the nature of justice within any given life.  Readers familiar with the Bible will recognize the obvious allusions to the Book of Job, and having an awareness of the themes of that book can build some engagement and appreciation for Leviathan’s Scales. But I made a concerted effort to create a romantic story with which people could identify and on which they could reflect that dealt with serious contemporary themes of corporate greed vs. personal achievement and the emotional hardships that wrack every person’s life in one way or another. It includes humor, tragedy, love, intrigue, music and diverse literary allusions, all in ways that can provide either a mere momentary satisfaction or cause for deeper reflection later. I admit the book is not as good as, say, A Prayer for Owen Meany or Bridge of Sighs, but I believe people who appreciate Irving and Russo would say Leviathan’s Scales holds its own. In my own head, I liken its general level of quality to The Horse Whisperer, though it is certainly nothing like that book in plot or meaning. The book’s available on amazon.com. Purchase Leviathan’s Scales

“Faith of a Father” – B

This story turned out very close to what I envisioned at the outset.  It’s one of my first serious short stories, and I think that’s apparent in a writing style that is functional and easy-to-read but not particularly gripping, at least until the end.  The plot is generally solid, but character development is generally unimpressive, although that is not entirely true for the main character, MacArthur Payne. If I had to point out a chief flaw, I would say the story suffers from a tendency to “tell” too much when it should simply let the “showing” carry the narrative. Still, I think that once you get into the story, you feel an ever-increasing need to keep reading and to finish it, and the final scene is quite intense. Ultimately, it leaves you with some important things to consider if, like me, you’re intrigued by the notion of how religious faith can apply to everyday life in the 21st century.

“The Milkhouse” – A-

I figured I’d better throw in a high rating, lest you think I’m fixated on the B range. Again, the language and syntax in this story aren’t exactly something to write home about, but the storytelling is pretty solid, and I think I do a pretty good job of making the central event of the story believable, despite it being something that would be very unusual.  The first-person narrative helps move the plot in a way that permits more “show” and less “tell” and also in a way that helps the reader better identify with the conflicted emotions of the narrator.  Its intellectual conclusions are a bit more murky than I’d like, but I think it’s still a story people could talk about energetically with each other.

“The Unforgiving Hand” – B-

I still very much like the premise of this story — an encounter with tragedy from the perspective of an insect with a lifespan of one day.  I took the idea from a satire by Ben Franklin called “The Ephemera,” though my story is most definitely not a commentary on life at court in 18th century Paris.  My goal was to help a reader feel the real and personal terror such an insect could feel when confronting the prospect of imminent death.  In the process, it came out considerably more like a children’s story than I intended.  Someday, I would like to give it another shot with a darker, more sinister tone, but this one, as I said above, did elicit an unequivocally positive response from some respectable corners, so I figure maybe others will like it, too.

“Big Sam” – B+

This is a very short story, written largely as a nostalgia piece based on activities I used to do with my friends in Marquette Heights, Illinois, growing up in the ’60s.  To be really gripping and moving, I’d have to add a lot more description, narrative and character development.  With all that, this could make an interesting chapter in a longer, growing-up-in-the-’60s reflection, but for what it is – just a little story about something that happened involving a frog of mythic proportions – it’s decent enough. Popcorn, not filet mignon. But sometimes popcorn’s what you want.

“The Famous Gunfighter” – A-

I give this a good grade in spite of the fact that it’s kind of a cliche Wild West story.  But it also has a very subtle depth.  I wrote it around the start of the first Iraq War, and it had for me at the time a lot of allegorical connections.  A reader today couldn’t possibly think to consider them, but now that you know, you might reflect on them if you read the story.  Like “Big Sam,” it’s not long, and it wasn’t intended to be a deep reflection on either fame or dueling in the Wild West, but it’s a story that, Iraq connection or not, could make you think a little bit.

“A Service for Hamilton Pope” – A

In terms of writing quality, this is my favorite of the short stories I’ve written so far. Partially, that’s because it has a lot of personal meaning for me reflecting on some of the formative relationships and experiences that remain precious. But I also think there is an earnestness and sincerity in the tone that helps burnish the narrative and, especially, emphasize the lessons that it describes. Descriptively, I think it gives a very vivid picture of the funeral setting and the people who appear and interact in it.

You’ll find excerpts from all these stories — and in some cases, the entire story — elsewhere on my website. Or you can buy them in a collection I published on Amazon.com. Purchase “Faith of a Father And Other Stories”

If you should read any of these stories, above all, thank you. I certainly hope you don’t consider it a waste of your time or money. But I also welcome your reaction, whatever it may be. Include your comments on this page or feel free to use the “Contact Us” button.

Jim Slusher

 

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