Brian Ames's stories are reminiscent of both Hemingway and Raymond Carver, but where Hemingway's characters are stoically going about the business of living up to their own self-images of masculinity, and Carver's characters struggle to live with their failures as men, Ames's male protagonists in Eighty-Sixed (Word Riot Press, 2004) are, if not exactly "hapless," as the book's subtitle has it, comically unable to recognize their failures even while they're enduring them.
"Ajax the God" concerns a former major league baseball player whose career bursts quickly into success--a no-hitter in his second season--only to then fizzle even faster. The story follows him on a post-career elk hunt (an activity that figures into several of the stories in Eighty-Sixed), during which he thinks back on the important stages of his life as a baseball player, but he seems mostly puzzled by it all, not anguished, or even regretful. The protagonist of "This Organization Must Keep Iowa's Roads Open" is the operator of a snow plow whose rig is hijacked by a truly hapless thief who has just robbed a convenience store in the middle of an Iowa blizzard. At the end of the story the protagonist vows to never again be away from his family on such a day, "Not until they have all grown very old." "The Law of Club and Fang" is narrated by a man whose own account shows him to have been a poor excuse for both husband and father, but this is about as far as he can get by way of self-reflection:
Look, I'm not unaware that there is some question whether I was a good husband to Aurora. I know all that. Believe me, there is no one in the world who has asked these questions more than I have. I wonder whether I should have tried just a little bit more. I wonder why it is that I came to a certain point with her, a threshold, and determined I could go no further.
The distance between these characters' self conceptions and the objectively pathetic situations in which they find themselves--extending even to the middle-class characters, such as the protagonist of "The Small Things in Life," who obsesses over toast--creates a kind of sadsack comedy that makes the almost exclusive focus on male characters and their problems much easier to take than a detached description of the stories' plots--man gets in trouble with his drug dealer for nonpayment of debts; woman hires lowlife to kill her husband--might suggest. Some of the stories are just plain hilarious, regardless of the underlying theme of masculine degeneration: "Simultaneous Submission," about a "writer" who sells tall tales for alcoholics to use at A.A. meetings, or "Physics Package," about a man who purchases a shoulder-fired missle (which mysteriously grows in size over time) to help out his minister in "chasing the devil out of town."
A few of the stories are really rather touching. "Monocle" depicts the travails of a man born with only one eye--situated in the middle of his face, Cyclops-style. "Matahir's Flight" narrates the harrowing tale of an Indonesian man who stows himself away inside the wheel well of a jumbo jet on a flight from Jakarta to Los Angeles. A few others occupy a fairly eerie middle ground between comedy and tragedy through what they don't say and don't reveal (the Hemingway "iceberg effect"): "Arbor Day," which ends with the grievous injuring of a man hired to remove a tree from the narrator's yard, and "Down at the Igloo," about a bleeding man who walks into a diner and is served an ice cream cone. "The Man Who Loved Jimi Hendrix" (the title sums it up), "Affliction" (an ordinary story about a man pining for his secretary), and "At the Treeline" (a confusing story about armed revolutionaries) are among the stories I would call more or less complete misses, but in a book of 22 stories, the quality of execution in Eighty-Sixed is admirably consistent.
Few of the stories in this book were originally published in big-name literary journals. A number of them were published in online journals such as Coelacanth and Prose Toad. And, of course, Word Riot itself hardly qualifies as a BEA behemoth. That a writer of Brian Ames's obvious ability finds his publishing outlets in these modest venues tells us either that such venues are coming to take on an increasingly significant role in the publication of good writing or that the big names in both book and journal publishing are becoming less and less reliable as standard-bearers, less and less able to identify good writing with sufficient acuity that we can be confident talented writers and worthwhile books are being made available to their potential readers. (Or both.) Perhaps not all the fiction published by web-based or small-circulation magazines and out-of-the way presses measures up to the highest literary standards (neither does the fiction appearing in McSweeney's or The Paris Review), but if you can find Brian Ames there, you're doing pretty well.