the hilltop I can see rolling green hills and a clear unlimited
horizon. The prairie flowers have erupted into crimson, yellow, orange
and blue. They sweeten the air. I smell smoke from the fire and the
sweat of horses."
Reviewed by Sarah Hilary
A great friend of mine, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, was fond
of giving this advice to aspiring writers: "Keep the mythic distance!"
By which it was generally assumed that he meant never allow the viewer
or reader to get close enough, to screen or page, to spy processes or
flaws which might show up the finished product as anything less than
Bull is happy to show us these processes (and occasionally flaws)
between thought and page, first draft and last, unpublished and
published prose. At the end of each story in his collection, he
footnotes how it came about, or what its fate was at the hands of a
precarious small press publishing industry (one story was accepted for
an anthology that was subsequently "scrapped due to finances"). I was
torn between admiring his candour and wishing he’d not revealed so much
of his craft. I wanted to believe in the storyteller’s magic by which
he recreates scenes from 1850s mid-America, with its cowboys and
Indians, or New York in the 1930s.
There are stories here that
transport the reader, perhaps because Bull is a psychologist and
effortlessly taps into the minds and voices of his characters. More
than one story is written convincingly from the perspective of a young
girl. In A Lady of Quality,
the heroine is African-American, called from the cotton fields to work
as a servant in a white household. Bull writes her voice so
authentically that it’s almost a pity there aren’t more stories told by
this narrator in the collection.
Diversity is another of his
talents. Bull takes us from "Bleeding Kansas" in 1858 to a modern day
Manhattan ghetto where justice is dealt out with equal brutality. There
are upbeat, funny stories. There are downbeat, noir stories. Don’t be
fooled by the shlocky cover (not the first time a short story
collection will be ill-served by its publisher’s cover choice, and
probably not the last), these stories cover distances and time, and
mood, without losing a beat.
One or two stories suffer from
odd pacing, ending too abruptly or moving too fast during sections
which should unravel more intricately. Locard’s Principle
feels as if it’s an exploratory outline for a novel, rather than a
short story. But Bull is a master at the opening paragraph; there isn’t
one here that doesn’t grab you by the throat. Acknowledging Funeral Games
as darker than his average story, Bull fails to point out it’s also one
of his very best, opening with a corpse and progressing as smoothly as
a Raymond Chandler tale, through a sequence of excellent surprises to a
satisfying denouement. Heidegger’s Cat is another example of Bull at his best, its political subtext as interesting as its pin-sharp, real-time action.
it was interesting, in one sense, to read Bull’s footnotes to the
stories, I’d suggest he drops them from any future collection; they
seem amateurish, while the stories themselves are anything but. Keep
the mythic distance, Warren!
|Sarah Hilary won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Criminally Short
Histories Prize in 2008. Her fiction appears in The Fish Anthology,
Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I, II and III, and
in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice.
She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009, and Highly Commended
in the Sean O’Faolain short story competition 2010. Sarah is currently
working on a novel. Her agent is Jane Gregory.