Stories in the
Key of C. Minor
by Russell Bittner
Russell Bittner has published many stories in
print and on the web. He appears to have successfully made the
transition from the world of television and Internet transmission to
writing short stories, ie. from for-profit to non-profit.
with Russell Bittner
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"We eat. The only sound in
the room is that of three people eating and swallowing – and digesting
the absence of a fourth."
Reviewed by Jason Makansi
All five stories in Russell Bittner’s first collection draw their
strength from the dark side of the human condition. Just to be clear,
there is a sixth piece, a novella, which you can consider as a bonus
but is not reviewed here since the charge is short stories.
the exception of the endings, these stories are tightly constructed and
sparingly written. But they don’t spare your emotions one iota. They
speak to gaping loss, terror, random death, and the desecration of
human bonds – all without melodrama or cliché – through desperate
women, unfeeling men, divorced parents, and naïve kids. We are witness
to the inevitable softening of a bond between a father and his son (Fright Night),
the lack of any human bonds whatsoever in a man who randomly terrorizes
women to satisfy Internet clientele salivating for pornography served
up as brutally as possible (Waltzing Matilda), a romantic interlude destroyed by a random hit and run (Collisions), a Thanksgiving dinner about as fulfilling as a turkey with no stuffing (In the Animal Kingdom), and the hiring of a poet by a corporate executive so he can be "summoned at will" (The Poet and the President).
has a quiver full of techniques to pierce your emotions. No one
deserves to be terrorized for porno profit but the woman subjected to
it in Waltzing Matilda does
something undeniably stupid, especially for a New Yorker who should
know better. It is the excruciatingly slow unfolding of the terror
Bittner uses to change your gasp from "Geez, woman, you asked for it!"
to "Oh my God, he’s gonna kill her!" (He doesn’t, just so you know). In
In the Animal Kingdom, Bittner
has the boy, waiting patiently at the table, see the turkey day feast
first as he wishes it to be, then through the harsh reality of what it
is. This isn’t a new technique but here it is very effective. In Collisions,
Bittner’s got a woman riding the roller coaster of love at first sight
up to the top of the first peak, except we’re all in that car with her
when it falls off the rails.
What strike me as somewhat atonal
with Bittner’s stories are his endings, which come across as
over-written, slightly disembodied epilogues. But that’s more of a
writer’s comment than a reader’s so I won’t dwell on it. I also
couldn’t figure out why the back flap uses this description: "Six
stories, all of which start within a five-mile radius of 350 5th
Avenue, the address of the Empire State Building, the original 'Ground
Zero.'" Unless I missed it, that building plays no role in these
stories. In fact, most of the back-flap copy seems unconnected to these
stories, and certainly don’t portend the richness of what’s inside. Oh,
and the title. That’s what led me to the collection, but I don’t see
how it threads through these stories. Another reviewer noted that C
Minor is the "key of melancholy" but Bittner’s fiction goes well beyond
that mild emotional territory.
On the other hand (and this may
be purely an ex-New Yorker’s view), I did appreciate how all the
stories seemed infused with that subtle inferiority-superiority
dichotomy that is Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs.
With no hesitation, I proclaim In the Animal Kingdom as
the best story in the bunch, hopefully a future award winner. In the
span of twelve pages, the strings of my emotions were plucked over
until broken, only to be rehabilitated at the very end. Bittner has the
young boy narrator summon up the strength from the tragedy that is 9/11
for his family at the table to go on. In fact, we are all at the table.
This story universally resuscitates us from the "collateral damage" we
suffer from that tragic day.