Rattlesnakes & The Moon
 by Darlin' Neal

Press 53, 2010
First collection

Awards: Finalist, 2008 New River’s Press MVP Award, Finalist, 2007 BkMk Press GS Sharat Chandra Prize)

Darlin' Neal is a native Mississippian who spent her childhood traveling New Mexico and attending 13 different grade schools. After completing degrees in Psychology, Journalism and English at New Mexico State, she left Las Cruces and headed for Tucson. Upon finishing her MFA at the University of Arizona, she returned to Mississippi in search of her roots. In 2001 she completed a PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Among her awards are a fiction fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission, a Henfield Transatlantic Award, New Mexico State University’s Frank Waters Fiction Fellowship, and the Joan Johnson Award from the Center for Writers. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Puerto del Sol, Smokelong Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, The Rio Grande Review, and dozens of other magazines. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous anthologies including the Best of The Web 2009 and Online Writing: The Best of The First Ten Years. She holds an assistant professorship in the MFA program at The University of Central Florida. She lives in Orlando and Jensen Beach, Florida with a calico named Maggie, her guy and a dog named Catfish.

Read an interview with Darlin' Neal.

" ... she walked right on in the house, pretending that neither of them saw that scarf. She never saw it. She never saw him see her seeing it."

Reviewed by Alex Thornber

This is life. This is that story you heard someone else telling a friend in a coffee shop. These are people, with all their flaws, imperfections and emotions. These stories are not simply told, they are felt. Neal’s stories are sad, lonely, sometimes confusing, but they are invariably heartfelt.

If there was ever a book which could be judged by its cover, it is Darlin’ Neal’s Rattlesnakes & The Moon. In the cover picture the moon hangs low and almost fills the sky; the road is dark, subtly lit with headlights that trail off into the distance. There could not be a more perfect image for Neal’s stories in this collection. The people who inhabit the world of this book are in a darkness of some form or another, just living; surviving may be a more apt word, just surviving. But in the dark bedrooms, money-filled suitcases and garages, everyone is on that road, in darkness still, hoping to someday reach the lighter, happier place.

Neal’s writing is admittedly a little hard to ease into, she has a strong connection to the voice, dialect and tone of the land she is writing about, but no sooner than the end of the first story you will find yourself there.

That first story, Red Brick, sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Red Brick is a story about a girl’s dying grandfather and the family that surrounds him. The significance of this first story in relation to the rest is staggering. The characters are never named and little detail is given about any of them but the brief mention of poppies growing on the lawn outside helps to reveal a little about the grandfather; perhaps a war veteran, an old man hanging on, a hero.

The encroaching moment of the old man’s death has a darkly comic effect on the girl as she goes outside to fetch something, promptly forgets, and then in a daze mistakenly walks into a neighbour’s house. Inside the neighbours are playing cards, joking and having a generally nice time, and when the girl eventually returns to her grandfather, he has died.

Red Brick highlights the fleeting, ubiquitous nature of loss and to a certain extent prepares the reader for the ways characters deal with it in the rest of the collection. Though the rest of Neal’s stories don’t all directly deal with death, its presence is often there in the background, taking loved ones and shaping the characters' lives. In the rest of the stories, it is not so immediate - almost invariably the father, sister or friend has died some years in the past -  but that daze and the awkward ways in which those left behind behave is still there.

Though Neal’s brilliant writing and ever-interesting characters run steadily throughout, some of the stories that follow Red Brick lack the emotional immediacy and excitement, occasionally even feel rambling. Of the other eleven stories in this collection, it is the shorter pieces Honey, Don’t and Scarf, alongside Red Brick, in which Neal’s writing shines. Despite their brevity, they are packed with more emotion than some novels.

Scarf stands out as a desperately sad story of a woman who still hasn’t accepted her sister’s death. This has, ironically, led to her accepting the ways of her cheating husband. Though the whole story is magnificent, its entire emotional power lies in the bullet of a last sentence:
She never saw him see her seeing it.
Even taken out of the story and left to stand on its own, this line feels like it could fit any context with this character. She is so worn down that she simply chooses not to see things, to ignore their significance. She has lost a sister and is terrified to lose anyone else.

Like the poppies in Red Brick, this is the kind of writing Neal triumphs at; single lines or phrases that illuminate the characters and stories so vividly that you cannot help but be affected by them. These are the moments that remain, the stories you wont forget in a hurry.

Read a story from this collection in Smokelong Quarterly

Alex Thornber  writes and reads short stories almost exclusively. He is also the Editor of Tomlit.

Alex's other Short Reviews: "The Collected Stories of John Cheever"

A J Kirby "Mix Tape"

Susan Tepper "Deer and Other Stories"
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