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Drift and Swerve

Samuel Ligon

"You sit on the bed facing her back. She watches you through the mirror. You’re too tired for rape and terror. "I'm not sure what I’m supposed to do", you say, and she says, "Okay, we’ll start after the initial struggle, once I’m restrained and subdued. Drugged possibly. You need to handcuff my ankles and wrists to the legs of the chair. Blindfold me. Gag me. And then start in, you know, doing stuff to me."

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

The fourteen stories in Drift and Swerve are nail-bitingly good. They have an edge, not from being roughly written but because the subject matter goes beyond safe. Characters struggle to connect, they take risks and face hard consequences (because usually they have no choice). We read how hard it is being a kid, how it feels to belong to dysfunctional families or at the end of a relationship. There is dissatisfaction and emotional paralysis as characters realise they are no longer in touch with other people or themselves.

Ligon has a skill for writing characters that are gutsy. They hang out in places like 'The Glass Slipper' and 'The Pink Pussycat', and are ever so slightly out of control. Their lives play out at an almost real-time pace so that, as readers, we can feel all the awkwardness and tension they experience. These stories are not ordinary. They expose. They confront.

Nikki is seventeen and lands in Providence with $10 to her name and is 'pearl diving' in a lesbian bistro called La Chatte du Maison. Henry is a kid whose brother died inside his mother. He is always a German when the kids play war, and gets in trouble for drawing a swastika on his spelling test. Hugh sets up high command in a tree in his garden and gets his revenge on the teenage vandals targeting his house.

Nikki stars in four stories in this collection. We would never want to be Nikki. She has run away from a terrible life at home with mum, ending up in Providence and later Austin to live with bad men, transitory friends and too many drugs. In Providence she leaves a relationship with a man almost as old as her mum, and stays with a drug dealer, taking ex and robbing his drug money. In Dirty Boots (the title of a Sonic Youth song) she is about to get thrown off an education program for fucking another student. In Austin she stabs a man who comes into her room, chokes and rapes her and oh my god she wants revenge. In Orlando, she is drunk on a greyhound bus between Providence and Austin.

Nikki's life is moshpits, violence, sex and Percocets, but she is a teenager trying to get by at the same time as understand what's happened in her life. She is a brilliant character - brash, angry, wild, vulnerable and alone. It is difficult not to like her. Ligon has given her a hard edge and a soundtrack of Dinosaur Jr, The Sugarcubes and Patti Smith.

I want to stress that there is nothing insubstantial about these stories. They are not concerned with drugs and sex as primary material, these are just things that happen. The real focus is the vulnerability of these characters, the way they relate (or not) to others, the tensions and dysfunctions in their relationships. In the title story, for instance, Ligon captures perfectly the frayed intimacies of a family driving back a visit to their dying grandma. We experience their in-jokes and boredom, their squabbling and their fascination with a drunk driver in front of them. It feels weirdly familiar, as though we are voyeur to something we have ourselves experienced. Yet, there are these beautifully unique details, such as the kids quietly throwing their shoes out of the car window.

The imagery and language are Ligon's own. A man "whisper-spits" "I'm busy" to his wife, and car tyres whip up "a roostertail of dust and gravel". And here we are, as readers, ground into the dirt of a slightly sleazy but cool America with all its beauty and crap all rolled into one.

Of course, the consequences in these stories are both quiet and disturbing, the details graphic but understated. There are infidelities, awful confessions at a party and men obsessed with breasts or women in general, or just sex. It's as if we are voyeurs to a series of slow-motion car crashes, staring from our car windows desperate to see how badly people have been hurt.

Read a story from this collection in the New England Review

 Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her first chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. She blogs at http://forgettingthetime.blogspot.com.

Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"

Mark Illis "Tender"

"One World Anthology"

Publisher: Autumn House Press

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Winner, 2008 Autumn House Fiction Prize

Author bio: Samuel Ligon is the author of the novel, Safe in Heaven Dead (HarperCollins). His stories have appeared in The Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, Story-Quarterly, New Orleans Review, Sleepingfish and elsewhere. He teaches at East Washington University's Inland Northwest Center for Writers, and is the editor of Willow Springs.

Read an interview with Samuel Ligon

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