Self Defense by Corey Mertes; Cornerstone Press; 148 pages; $21.95
These stories by Corey Mertes have a quality that is both raw and elegant. The characters are dreamers whose dreams spoil before their eyes — gambling addicts, ballroom dance grifters, Las Vegas dealers, a teacher slowly going mad, lawyers, writers, a right-wing neighbor from hell — all of them down on their luck, but neither luck nor love will save them. They have to save themselves. Some of them manage an approximation of salvation, and some don’t.
The first story, “Rabbit,” follows the trajectory of a lie. A young girl owns a pet rabbit. The man next door owns dogs. When one of the man’s dogs brings home the dead body of the pet rabbit, the man decides not to fess up and instead places the dead rabbit back in its cage as if it had died of natural causes. This single act changes the life of the girl and not for the better. “Even a seemingly inconsequential disturbance may leave an unseen trace,” the narrator tells us.
The voice in “Rabbit” maintains an authorial distance with its unnamed characters, as if Aesop were telling the tale. The narrator, and hence the reader, scrutinizes the human drama from a safe perch. Other stories, told in the first person, delve deep into the consciousnesses of the characters as they ponder the “wrecked chapters” of their lives and the random moments of grace that enable them to survive.
In “Violins” a young woman named Cola relates her adventures, sexual and otherwise, in a slice of life chronicle with a voice cynical and somehow also wistful. At a police station where she’s giving a statement after she’s assaulted her useless and abusive ex-boyfriend, she sees two “raucous teenagers” who smart off to the desk sergeant and wind up getting the crap beat out of them. Witnessing their defiance in the face of the beating, Cola says, “I became conscious of why someone like my ex, or like myself for that matter, would cling to the stale signposts of childhood, from the one time in life when he, or I, in the absence of interference, might have walked the earth like tigers, full of power and courage and brio.”
The story “Lurch” takes readers into the world of Las Vegas casinos with a perspective so jaundiced you might have wandered into a film noir. “The room had a comfortable feel like a baby’s crib or a prisoner’s cell,” the narrator tells us. Lurch is a six-foot seven-inch gambler whose fist you don’t want to “walk into”; the narrator, an unemployed blackjack dealer, needs money because he’s got a “tip in the ninth.” While the narrator gets a happy ending, and not in the wholesome sense of the word, Lurch doesn’t fare so well, but as the blackjack dealer tells us in a world-weary voice: “Everybody’s got reasons for everything.”
While mental health issues abound in these stories, “Psychiatrist” (perhaps the best of a very good lot) revolves around a party game in which one participant must figure out the rules that everyone else in the room knows. The partiers playing the game are all employees at a ballroom dance studio; their livelihood stems from conning lonely people into purchasing packages for lessons. The wife of the owner of the dance studio, who, ironically, relies on her husband’s rules to govern her life (rule number 8 is “compliment yourself daily”) stands in the center of a circle, trying to figure out the rules. A doting wife, she finds herself utterly humiliated during the game, but by the end of the story “manages to free herself with a slick maneuver for a final sequence of her own spontaneous design.”
The stories in Self Defense cover a wide range of situations, held together by acute observations and brilliant writing — fresh, unsparing but never disdainful, and steeped in first-hand knowledge of the subject. These stories manage to be fatalistic and somehow still hopeful. While they rarely end well for the people involved, a resilient spirit emerges. The stories themselves are as addictive as the throw of the dice or turn of the cards that Mertes’ gambling addicts can’t resist.