Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Last Call

A short story by Richard Larson
Reviewed by Max A. Gordon

Setting: A bar, late night

Protagonist: unnamed

Narrator: 1st person

Tense: Present

The first line of this story, ‘“Bristol Palin is an alien,” says Chuck,”’ puts the reader directly into current-events America. But the narrator’s reaction to it, “and it’s not really that funny because it might actually be true. This might be some kind of invasion,” puts the reader on notice that s/he shouldn’t get too comfortable knowing what’s going on. The interaction between “Chuck” and the narrator, while the focus of the story, is dealt with through the interior monologue of the narrator, and is subsumed by what the narrator thinks of (and fantasizes about) Bristol Palin’s life, personal memories, and musings about life in general.

From fantasies about Bristol’s life and experience of love, the narrator segues into memories about “my own mother.” By this time, the reader has probably made the assumption that the overriding theme has to do with heterosexual relationships. That would be a mistake. For the narrator pictures “Mommy” being scared and crying while crossing a bridge, with “her five-year-old son… sitting behind her with… a picture book or a sketchpad and wondering what was so sad about bridges….” And though it took me awhile to put it all together, I finally realized that the “I” of the narrator is male.

While this puts an end to the validity of the assumption about heterosexuality being in play, homosexuality very nicely does not become the focus of the story. Rather, the reader is gently encouraged to examine what it means to be human and what the purpose of our time on this planet may be. To accomplish this, Bristol Palin, aliens, Chuck, and mother are all woven into the narration in an almost stream-of-consciousness style that is actually quite pleasant even though ultimately unrewarding--if by rewarding it is meant that answers are provided.

At ~2200 words, this is a particularly well-written story. Yes, it is challenging, both to our assumptions and our attention to detail, but I came away with the belief that this was the author’s intention. If you aren’t paying close attention (or willing to read it several times, as I had to), you will miss important things. That would, indeed, be a shame. The inkwell is full.

ePublisher: Eclectica Magazine Volume 13, No. 3, July/August, 2009
Format: I read this story online, with my browser.

Friday, July 3, 2009


A short story by Richard Bausch

Preface to the reviews
Campbell eLiterary Review is, as you know if you are reading this, a relatively new venture, begun with the idea of making available sources of literature not known to most people. By ‘reviewing’ fiction published online, we hope to point our readers to a vast and underutilized resource. But, of course, not all fiction published online is worth the reader’s time and energy. So, your editors at CeR, writers themselves, seek out (at least some of) those pieces we feel will reward readers for the time they devote.

In this process, we have come to realize that we, as individuals, look for and appreciate different things in the fiction we read. This is not surprising at all, but our concern is that should you read a review by one of us lauding a given story for its structure or voice or story line, you may not agree with that particular reviewer about that particular piece, whereas given a review of a different story by a different reviewer, you might find that review to be very insightful and appreciate having been directed to that story.

After some discussion, we decided that it would be an interesting experience to have all three of us review the same story, thus giving our readers the opportunity to evaluate the differences between us as reviewers. This is not to discourage anyone from reading the stories selected by any one of us, but may help our readers decide which of us most parallels their own tastes, whittling down (so to speak) the offerings we post to those most likely to be appreciated by the individual reader. We hope that this may be of help to anyone faced with choosing what to read on the basis of reviews posted on CeR. At the very least, we felt that it would be of great interest to us as reviewers to see how differently we might review the web offerings available. The three reviews that follow are of the same story, “Blood,” by Richard Bausch.


Review by Max Gordon
Setting: various parts of Memphis, Tennessee
Protagonist: Walker Clayfield; 24 year old self-employed partner (with his older brother) in a “subcontracting business”
Narrator: 3rd person, limited omniscient
Tense: Present

Walker Clayfield and his older brother, Max, partner in a business that has come on hard times. There isn’t enough work to keep them busy, but Max has other things to pursue anyway, namely the completion of a boat that was started in his back yard by their deceased father. This leaves Walker with more free time than is healthy for someone as conflicted as he is.

Walker’s conflict results from the unhappy fact that he has fallen in love with his sister-in-law, Max’s wife, Jenny. Max, on the other hand, seems to have fallen out of love with her, in favor of his obsession with the unfinished boat, “Free At Last.”

Jenny, presumably because she still loves her husband, suffers from being displaced as the focus of his attention. Walker, torn between his filial love for his older brother and his own, deeply secret, obsession with Jenny, sees this suffering and suffers with her. At first. As the story progresses, however, his obsession gains the upper hand and he wants to replace his brother as the object of Jenny’s love. His acknowledgement of this desire in himself only deepens the conflict he feels, and results first in anger at himself, then anger at Max, and finally (when he begins to believe Jenny is involved with another man) anger at Jenny, herself, and the other man.

Ultimately, this is a story that illustrates the philosophical belief that for most of us, reality is a mental construct we put upon the world. So certain are we of the reality that we construct, that our actions can have disastrous consequences for others and for ourselves. At ~14,000 words, this is a major piece of work. It is carefully constructed and well written, with very few problems (one of which is the transformation of a water pump into a fuel pump). I have long been of the opinion that nothing belongs in a ‘short story’ except that which either develops the character or moves the action. And for that reason was glad to see that the editors at Narrative Magazine did not include it in the short story genre, instead labeling it “a story.” While there is much dispute about what length constitutes a short story – definitions vary but generally include works between 1,000 and 20,000 words (and this one certainly falls into that span) - by my definition, the inclusion of the details of the characters Ron and May Podrup, and the amount of time spent unsuccessfully trying to develop them as characters took the piece beyond acceptable short story length.

There are also a number of unusual situations in the piece that caused me to pause. Among those are the great disparity in the ages of the three brothers. Sean, the youngest, has just turned 15. Walker is 24. Max is 14 years older, which puts him at 38. This means that their mother’s, Minnie’s, reproductive life spanned 23 years, during which she gave birth to only three children. This might be normal if the boys had different fathers, but they don’t. Another situation (granted, it is demanded by the story line’s use of the boat in the back yard) is that when Max had won Jenny’s hand, he was still living at home with his mother and brothers. He bought a “small house in a little neighborhood of World War II housing over by the river and fixed it up for his mother and younger brothers to live in.” The “old place on Highpoint Terrace” presumably belonged to Minnie, and yet she agreed to move into a smaller place with her two remaining sons, displacing them from where they grew up, and relinquishing her home of long standing to the newlyweds. I found this, if not unbelievable, at least puzzling.

I read this online first, then downloaded the .pdf file to read a second time, and finally printed it out to do my critique. It is certainly worth the three readings I gave it. On the basis of the obvious care in writing, and the author’s ability to believably create actions that describe a character whose conflict is generated by love, lust, and jealousy, the inkwell is four fifths full.

Review by Susanne MacDougall
An unfinished boat and a neglected wife are at the center of this story. Max returns to his unhappy, childhood home with his young and pretty wife to complete the restoration of his deceased, alcoholic father's boat.

Max labors on the ribs of what could one-day become a seafaring vessel and neglects his wife in the process. Max's younger brother, Walker decides to help the wife but soon desires for more from her.

The wife is detached and it is never clear where she stands as the story weaves a painfully slow, evolving web of these relationships: Max with the boat, and Walker with Max's wife.

The story first appears to be about love, but soon any noble ideas are lost and develop into obsessions as Max then Walker are both consumed. The story makes it clear that obsessed people cannot be satisfied, let go, give, receive, and cannot move on. The cost to the afflicted and those around them is terrible and it warns that Max and Walker’s fate can be ours unless we learn to live in balance with what is happening now.

Obsession is more prevalent than love these days. Obsession perfectly fits with our commercialized society, which encourages us to get more things, a better life, a better job, the perfect mate, or follow an impossible dream at any cost.

This is a well-crafted story worth the time it took to read it. The story would be even better and tighter if it wasn’t burdened with unnecessary and non-essential details and characters.

Review by Lawrence Reeve
Forbidden love is a rich vein in literature, and while Blood doesn't mine enough to make you wealthy, you will feel better off having read it.

Walker is caught in the middle of his family, between his teenage brother who needs Walker to be a father, and the older Max, who is picking up where their dead father's craziness left off. Even to the point of acquring his father's obsession with building a wooden boat, much to the dismay of the whole family, especially Max's wife, Jenny.

Walker feels Jenny's pain, and her loneliness, and her sense of missed opportunities. No surprise, since Walker is in the same emotional boat. He has a crush that can't be stiffled and it pushes him over the edge. The edge, in this case, is any chance at happiness.

Like many modern short stories the emphasis is on the tone, here. I tend to dislike stories which seem content to simply reveal an incident, sustituting style for any cause and effect action. Fortunately, Walker moves from ignorance to knowledge (or maybe, knowledge to ignorance) like the character in a novel, a movement which I find more satisfying.

But, moody preoccupation is the first order of business for the whole family as we follow Walker until he finally decides to act on his feelings toward Jenny. The fact that the act is misdirected and self-destructive doesn't surprise, and therein the story delivers a moral.

Not that this is a morality play. Bausch delivers insight into what it is like to be in this state of desire without an acceptable target. The desperate hopelessness will ring true for anyone in that situation.

The ending has the mandatory ambiguity of the modern short story, apparently, lack of commitment affects authors, too. My complaints are minor, however. There is much to be appreciated in this powerfully told story. After all, who can resist forbidden love?

ePublisher: narrativemagazine.com
Format: Browser, no ads.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Way of the Blue-Winged Wangdoodle

A short story by David Huddle
Reviewed by Lawrence Reeve

Evey is a twelve-year-old grappling with a fundamental, and disturbing truth; the people we look up to, because we look up to them, closet their character flaws. The flaw always seems to be a precise counter-point to a carefully projected image, making it all the more shocking. Her grandfather's flaw is a minor one to be sure, this is the South, after all, but it rattles the family enough that she takes it upon herself to push herself toward adulthood and confront him.

She discovers in a moment of hesitation that she not only doesn't want to acknowledge his flaw, she doesn't want him to know she knows, as if any flaw will destroy the relationship. It reminds us, to paraphrase Pythagoras, to write the flaws of our friends in sand.

There is a natural tension here that draws the reader in, and enough of her father's 'fresh phases' to keep you grinning. At 6700 words it is a nice visit to the South.

ePublisher: Blackbird - Fall 2008, Vol 7, No 2. Blackbird is an online journal of literature and the arts published as a joint venture of the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and New Virginia Review, Inc.
Format: This eZine is visually pleasing, and laid out well for online (browser) reading. There are no advertisements.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


A Story by Josh Weil
Reviewed by Max A. Gordon

Setting: Eads County environs (a rural, agricultural area), perhaps in Virginia?

Protagonist: Osby Caudill, a rancher

Narrator: 3rd person omniscient

Tense: past

Nearing middle age, and alone, Osby cuts a figure of almost Chaplin-esque stature. His attempts to stay in touch with his long-time best friend, are complicated by the fact of his unmarried, non-parental status. His devotion to his now deceased parents (his father a recent suicide) and to his ranch has left him reclusive and unprepared to interact with the world at large. The few others in touch with him see the need for his exposure to, and interaction with, humanity, and he does allow himself to be talked into advertising for and accepting a boarder to help fill up the large, empty house he lives in. But even as he is agreeing to accept the very first applicant, there is no real engagement on Osby’s part. He stands apart from the interaction, almost a neutral observer, fascinated by the young man’s enthusiasm for life, but unable to share it on anything other than a superficial level.

Likewise, when he receives a clumsy offer of a sexual relationship, which might ultimately lead to a parallel emotional bond, Osby doesn’t just walk away – he runs flat out. Ultimately, Osby is his father’s son, a man for whom the world must center on those already dependent upon him – his cows and the ranch they inhabit. His future doesn’t look particularly bright. Nevertheless, Osby is an almost iconic American character… the man, alone, independent, self sufficient, and self-fulfilled.

At ~6800 words, this story has several flaws that, while not totally destructive, do somewhat damage the story, and should have been caught by a careful editor. The story begins by exploring the relationship between Osby and his long-time best friend, Carl Ventre. Unfortunately, later in the story, Carl Ventre becomes Clendal Ventre. Similarly, the Quickmart later becomes the C&O. Lastly, kenaf, while actually slightly resembling the cannabis plant, has very little resemblance to the sugarcane plant. This might be attributable to the character’s lack of familiarity with sugarcane, but might also be authorial error. Nevertheless, this story is well worth reading.

The inkwell is four fifths full!

ePublisher: narrativemagazine.com (free login required) Narrative has one of the most professionally designed websites I’ve yet seen in the epublishing world.

Narrative Magazine’s Mission Statement reads: NARRATIVE IS THE LEADING ONLINE PUBLISHER of first-rank fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. A nonprofit organization, Narrative is dedicated to advancing the literary arts in the digital age by supporting the finest writing talent and encouraging readership around the world and across generations. Our online library of new literature by celebrated authors and by the best new and emerging writers is available for free.

Format: I read this story online, using the .pdf file

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Kingdom of Norway

A short story by Bryan Hurt
Reviewed by Max A. Gordon
Setting: Interior of a VW Rabbit, nighttime
Protagonist: An unemployed college graduate, recently fired for marijuana use
Narrator: 1st person - Nathan
Tense: Present
Coming of age can be a difficult transition. The three characters in this story are plumb in the midst of that transition, but at different stages on the journey. Matty, the most advanced, has nearly made it to adulthood (he actually has a steady job), but is reluctant to leave his adolescence behind completely. Nathan, his roommate, and our narrator, still hasn’t honestly engaged the struggle to transform himself, despite the consequences he faces for his refusal. Helen, their mutual love interest, has rejected the role of adult - despite having graduated from college - and is ‘touring’ the American continents, with no concrete plans for the future.
Like their mythical destination, a bar named “The Kingdom of Norway,” the comfort of permanent adolescence can never be attained. Helen knows of the bar’s existence from the ‘friend of a friend,’ and off they go in pursuit of it. It is the Never Land of Peter Pan, the place that can only be imagined and sought after in daydreams, the place where only the ‘in crowd’ has been (an adolescent desire, if ever there was one), the place that conveys the status of with-it-ness.
The growing intimacy between Matty and Helen leaves Nathan vulnerable and alone, and recalls to him the frustrations he faced in childhood. But it is these memories that must be recalled, mourned, and accepted, in order for him to move toward a future that recognizes and endorses the non-existence of such places as “The Kingdom of Norway,” even if regretfully.
At ~3300 words, this story is carefully written (with only one small copy-editing oversight [see if you can spot it… near the 20th paragraph]). It focuses on the conflict between adulthood and adolescence, and uses any number of issues to address that conflict. A short read, worth repeating several times, the inkwell is full.

ePublisher: 42opus  2 May, 2009  Vol. 9, No. 1
Their website states: 42opus is an online magazine of the literary arts. Although archived in quarterly issues, new writing is posted online every few days. The newest material is listed below. If this is your first visit to 42opus, you may wish to learn more about us.

Format: I read this story online, using html format.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Magnanimous Gesture

A short story by Adelaide B. Shaw
Reviewed by Susanne MacDougall

The main character, Larry Chenkowsky, eeks out a living on his small, remote avocado grove, painting his dusty, dry California vegetation for greeting cards and calendars. He lives secluded and uninterrupted until the police arrive one morning with grim news about Larry’s father: murdered along with his housekeeper. Larry finds himself reflecting on the complexities of the relationship with his deceased father.

We live in a time where the closest relationship is strangely inhibited by physical distance. Even as we have more tools than ever to connect, we often choose to be out-of-touch. We may as well be living alone in a remote place and time. Our lives separated not just by distance, but time as well. But when death comes knocking all the remote parts rush to the forefront of our mind, forcing us, just as it forces Larry, to relive those difficult family memories and justify past actions. Larry discovers that his old and remote life still holds enormous, emotional sway and ultimately drives a final magnanimous gesture and makes this story a better than average read.

ePublisher: BartlebySnopes at www.bartlebysnopes.com

Sunday, April 26, 2009


A short story by Toby Barlow
Reviewed by Lawrence Reeve

When I was playing competitive chess I soaked in many aspects of the game, including the history and literature. I stumbled upon a piece by Woody Allen (The Gossage—Vardebedian Papers) about a chess-by-mail game that had gone horribly, and hilariously, wrong. It reminded me that relationships, in spite of Dr. Phil's reminders to listen to your partner, are really one-sided affairs in which you interact with your perception of your partner, rather than their actual self.

To my delight, Toby Barlow's story of a one-sided relationship with the Department of Motor Vehicles, strikes a similar, and equally humorous, chord. If you have ever wondered why the time spent in line at the DMV is measured using the same scale used for measuring glacial recession, Toby's answer will prove enlightening and funny.

It reminds us all that our government departments are more than just the sum of their many people. Indeed, they are the sum of their people's neuroses, dreams, fantasies and fetishes.

At 4500 words, you can read it in line the next time you renew your license.

ePublisher: n + 1, July 7th, 2005 issue. n +1 is an eZine and print publication of politics, literature, and culture published twice-yearly. Issue Seven is now available in bookstores everywhere and by subscription. The website is updated with new content at least once weekly, usually on Monday.

Format: Read in my browser and advertising free.