Sam Slaughter’s collection of stories God in Neon features protagonists paddling up a great river of booze. Their strokes are futile, the current strong: with beer, tequila, whiskey, Old Crow, Jack, PBR. They struggle under the blurry burden of constant intoxication, their boozing not an act so much as a reality, like breathing. The booze, a unifying antagonist, is steady. Lurking. There.
God in Neon is filled with atheists at the bar looking for comfort but meeting instead with uneasy self-discovery.
One spits fire and chews glass as a Key West street freak; another lights up her favorite watering hole because the doc says one drink more will do her in. One doesn’t want the baby but doesn’t want his girlfriend drinking the baby to death (“Just because I don’t want it doesn’t mean it ain’t mine”); another contemplates his remorse over strapping dad to a wheelchair ahead of a night at The Package Depot, the saloon-cum-brownbag joint that unites them all. Another stuffs rabbits with fake Easter grass in hopes his son will talk to him. The boy keeps mum. Even silence is self-discovery.
The unnamed narrator of Body Shots arrives at the local joint to find his drinking buddies gawking two young co-eds passing through town, age-mates to no-name’s estranged daughter, Michele. Watch the narrator’s buddy Houston, town cop Hill, Harry the bartender and Jim the postmaster, participate in the spectacle. While his conscience nags—Michele, Michele, Michele—the narrator’s phone rings. He ignores it, watches Kaycee and Paula, thinks of Michele: “Was she showing off the edges of her underwear to a pack of men?”
He’s not the type to make a call. The ability’s there, a phone in his pocket, but he won’t ring her up, make sure she’s ok, ask what’s up. Like everyone else paddling Slaughter’s green river, he’s estranged, lost in his vice, detached from the thing he loves because he doesn’t or can’t love it as much as he loves his booze, or need it as much as he needs his booze. These raftsmen and women are distant. Warm-hearted but frozen. They live on the fringe, always at the sideline of relationships—emotional enough to wonder and worry and care, but not vested enough to do anything about it.
“Houston nudged another guy to the side and displayed the open space with a flourish of his hands. He spilled his drink as he did so, and I stood on the wet spot on the floor.” Slaughter chooses words well.
Narrator sets his lips to the glass rising and falling on Kaycee’s navel. “Ready when you are, Daddy,” she says. And, reminded of his forced absence from Michele’s life: “The only way I was ever going to be able to deal with it was with alcohol.”
Precise, evocative prose
Slaughter doles out prescriptions, little sips of sanity, medicine to get his protagonists through their imperfect lives. Some are more miserable than others; some are even successful. Functional alcoholics, all. He explores both sides of relationships: between fathers, sons, mothers, daughters; between boyfriend and girlfriend; the estranged and strangers.
Each shot glass of misery is chased with precise and evocative prose: “Sister Glass took the broken edge delicately between her lips and bit down. It sounded like popcorn in a far-off room. It was a slow process, her chewing. It looked like she was having a seizure, the way her eyes fluttered toward the top of her lids.” She’s teaching the narrator to feel alive: “I bit down and heard the grind and crunch. I held it there like she told me to, slowly lifting my teeth up and bringing them down again. I was aware of every one of my teeth, of every nerve in my tongue, my gums.”
In Runaway Jonas a dog has likely frozen to death. The boyfriend, it’s his fault, too many quick beers after his clerk shift at Cumbies. Apologetic? Only if by an apology he buries some other dead mutt so he can stop the damn search party. Nobody’s thinking of the future, of “What if the real pooch shows?” We already know how this story ends. The protagonist is an alcoholic and all that matters is where and when he’ll get that next drink: the packie beside the park where the earth will be, undoubtedly, too frozen to dig.
This collection is a journey of neglect and remorse, loss and sorrow, burying the past and evading the future, and for every ounce of hope, a Fifth of futility. “You know what its like to know that you’re never going to leave the city you grew up in?” So why NOT paint Welcome to Milwaukee on your roof to greet flights arriving in Minneapolis?
Shhh. “The sound of bottles opening seemed like an indictment against talking.” Read.