Bad Monkey
 by Curtis Smith

Press 53
2009, Paperback
First collection? No

Curtis Smith, a high school teacher for kids with special educational needs, has been writing for some time. His highly developed command of words and structure has led to notable successes from flash fiction collections to full length novels.  

Read an interview with Curtis Smith







"... so we sat there in the dark, waiting, once again, for one of those rare, terrible moments in life when something of meaning was about to happen."

Reviewed by Mark Dalligan


After reading this fourteen-story collection you will never be the same again. This is no temporary immersion in fictional worlds; this is high quality writing that leaves a rope burn.

The Girl in the Halo is an ambiguous tale of obsession, but more than that, it is an elegy for the changing rural and social American landscape. Scattered with clues to a murder (and just as liberally with "red herrings") the narrative uses a canvas of plot devices that rabbit-snare the reader, holding your eyes to the unfolding action, despite a yearning to turn away. A poor rural boy, resentful of encroaching country club culture, is trapped at the centre of a local tragedy. This examination of the clash between established and emerging cultures was famously used by Sir Walter Scott, but whereas Scott took hundreds of pages to drive home the point that cultures adapt or die, Smith slams this to us in a very few pages.

There is edginess, maybe pulled from early American literature, which comes from distinctions drawn between natural feelings and nurtured disdain; between the safety of the land and the wildness of the forest. Even with all the pointers, or perhaps because of them, the reader is left wondering if they have correctly identified the murderer.

Think on Thy Sins takes us to the world of recent Russian immigrants living in America. This is crime fiction featuring pride, money, violence, sin and culpability. At the same time, it is a "coming of age" story as the young anti-hero learns the subtleties and deceptions of the adult world. On another level it looks at cultural similarities and differences, the drive for education and the instability of family. There is no triumphant winner, just scars, regrets and truths to carry forward in life.

What About Meg takes us in a different direction to the previous tales. Here we meet a post-heart-attack academic who has died and been revived. The plastic valves of his new heart are not the only things that have changed in his life. He finds himself wanting to sell his house, but this will institutionalize his retarded, late-thirties, basketball-playing daughter. Is it family and duty or control of personal destiny that drives him?

Party Song is one of the lighter tales in the collection. At a fancy dress party, costumes and make-up combine with alcohol, education and class as a catalyst for change. The pressure is released in a talent show that sees the outsiders, at least temporarily, accepted.

Without Words follows Ambrose, a middle-aged man with an "off the rails" teenage son and a mother struck dumb by a stroke, as he struggles to come to terms with the his wife’s desertion. He finds himself ineffectual, lacking the capacity and drive to take control of things in the same way he has done in the past. He is rescued by involvement in a school project that ultimately leads to a spiritual reawakening, but one achieved on a slip road to danger.

Bad Monkey gives its name to this collection and is the only story not to have been previously published. We meet a carnival performer, a theatre major, not a professional carnie. He is trapped in a sub-culture from which he feels subtly divorced, craving comfort over the open road. The protagonist’s situation is mirrored in that of his fellow artiste, a caged monkey. The man’s lack of empathy (or is it the monkey’s inherent evil) lead to potential tragedy.

Smith is an original writer with a unique and compelling voice. I highly commend him to you.




Read the title story from this collection in the Barnstorm Journal


Mark Dalligan's short fiction has appeared in a number of on-line and print publications. 
Mark's other Short Reviews: Kim Newman "The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club"

Philip K. Dick "Human Is?"

Robert Shearman "Tiny Deaths"

David D Levine "Space Magic"

Lee Rourke "Everyday"
                     
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Anything by Curtis Smith including "An Unadorned Life" and "The Species Crown"

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