Reviewed by j.a. kazimer
One man’s trash…
Joe Clifford’s short story collection, Choice Cuts, is far from trash. But it is a collection you will treasure. Forever.
The timeless, often dark, and diseased tales feature characters on the edge. Stories filled with questionable choices, of characters so perfectly flawed you can’t help but wonder about Clifford’s own mental state.
What brings the collection together is, the raw, no-holds-barred writing style, intense characterizations, and beyond twisted plotlines. Just when you think you know how the story ends, Clifford masterfully rips away your pacifier, sending you crying like a baby into the dark unknown.
From the first story, “Unfinished Manuscript #36”, a tale reminiscent of Kerouac about a young man with big dreams and no drive, Clifford promises the reader a journey beyond the typical. Each tale grows increasingly gritty; by the third story (“The Favor”, a truly forbidding tale), you need a shower. A really hot one to wash away the grim, the sickness, the craving for more driving you to read on. You can’t stop. Not now. The pull of the words is too great. The need too much to bear.
So you read on, finding yourself captivated by degenerate meth addicts willing to kill for a fix (“Another Man’s Treasure”), by an exterminator (“The Exterminator”) bent of protecting an innocent girl, by a soldier captivated by another, perfect world (“Nix Verrida”) and finally, by the yummy tale called “The Meat,” in which two prison escapees face the problem of being unable to carry enough food across the tundra.
It was not without much moral debate that they arrived at their solution, desperate times and desperate measures, the need of two outweighing the need of one: they’d supply their own meat.
The candidate had to be slow-witted, gullible.
Most of all, he had to be fat.
Asked to pick my favorite cut from Choice Cuts, I’d go with “Red Pistachios,” a story about a drunk-one-hit-author who steals a student’s story about a serial killer obsessed with eating red pistachios. In the true murder-mystery fashion, Clifford builds the main character block by block as the stakes and tension mount in a flair worthy of Hitchcock.
Including his latest effort, Tom Hazuka had written over fifteen mystery novels, and in every one there had been a murder. Usually several. He’d had his characters shot, stabbed, drowned, strangled, butchered, poisoned, decapitated, and dropped in a vat of acid. Tom’s killers were rarely the cold, unfeeling types. Often, they agonized over their decisions (except for the husband who drops his wife in the acid in Murder by Mince Meat). These killings were crimes of passion, the purest forms of the basest instincts.
No one takes killing lightly. It had always seemed to Tom that a killer, even the most psychotic, on some level understands the magnitude of such conclusive action, thus reaffirming the value of human life.
It comes down to a choice. They simply value their own life more.
So when Tom poured Alexander a glass of pop with his one hand, and reached beneath the sink for the roof rat poison with the other, all the while carrying on a genial conversation, Tom both knew what he was doing, understood the gravity of the situation, while, at the same time, he was far removed from the situation, like a specter floating high above the body of Tom Hazuka.
It was a choice. An artistic choice a writer has to make.
But wait; there are plenty more stories worth the price of admission to Clifford’s brilliant and blighted mind. “Rages to Riches” comes to mind, the story of a TV executive who’s pulled himself from the dregs of society to produce a mega-hit reality TV show that pits bum against bum (a show I suspect E! is producing right now). The moral questions posed by the story are secondary to the twisted plot.
Surprisingly, Choice Cuts is Clifford’s first book, but not his last. Over the next year two additional novels, Wake the Undertaker and Junkie Love, will hit bookstores. Many of the stories in Choice Cuts can be found at some of the top noir and crime fiction anthologies and sites like Thuglit and Pulp Ink II. Joe Clifford is a known man about crime and addiction tales, his name instantly recognizable as the future of crime fiction. Props also to Snubnose Press who published this gritty, grim, and wonderful collection.
(full disclosure: Joe Clifford is kind of a regular around here – ed.)
j.a. kazimer is a writer living in Denver, CO. Books include The Junkie Tales, CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, and Dope Sick: A Love Story. The next book in the F***ed Up Fairy Tale series, FROGGY-STYLE, is forthcoming from Kensington in March 2013.
In addition to studying the criminal mind while obtaining a master’s degree in Forensic Psychology, j.a. kazimer spent a few years spilling drinks on people as a bartender and then wasted another few years stalking people while working as a private investigator in the Denver area. Cheaters, drunks, deadbeats and family hold a special place in j.a.’s heart, as well as a few pages in her novels. Learn more at www.jakazimer.com.