Stories in the
Key of C. Minor
 by Russell Bittner

Faraway Publishing
2009, Paperback
First collection

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.

Read an interview 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.

With 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).

Bittner 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.




Read a story from this collection in Faraway Journal


Jason Makansi has published several poems and half a dozen short stories in a variety of literary journals, as well as one accepted by the Amazon Shorts Program and available at www.amazon.com/shorts for the low, low price of 49 cents (you read that right). In 2009, he attended the renowned Sewanee Writer’s Conference held at the University of the South. Makansi has also published three professional books and numerous works of non-fiction in the fields of engineering, energy, environmental science, and economics.

Jason's other Short Reviews: Susie Bright (ed) "The Best of Best American Erotica"

Warren Adler "New York Echoes"

Frances Thimann "Cell and Other Stories"

Steven Coy (ed) "See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming"

Deborah Bostock Kelley "Damaged Goods: Narrative Unendings from Inside My Heart and Mind"

David Gardiner "The Other End of the Rainbow"

Ellis Sharp "Dead Iraqis"

Daniel A. Hoyt "And Then We Saw The Flames"

                     
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Warren Adler "New York Echoes"

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