The Angst of Choices Made


Redemption is a recurring theme in modern literature. I think it’s because we moderns are more aware of choices not made as well as those made. Ah, the simple life, it hardly exists anymore, does it? At least that’s what Bernhard Schlink’s book The Weekend, (Das Wochenende) seems to say.


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Racing Among Narrators



In the books you read, do you consider the narrators reliable? This is a question that has been asked more and more over recent decades. It’s an undeniable fact that, just as in written historical accounts, modern fiction readers know that the narrator is part invention, part author’s perspective. But when and where is the narrator taking cover behind the author’s skirts or trousers?

For the writer, one way out of this problem is to tell the story from the perspective of several characters. This allows the reader to winnow the truth about the story, about the life of a central character, perhaps. Jaimy Gordon did just this in her 2010 National Book Award winning novel, Lord of Misrule. If you haven’t had the pleasure, I’d recumbent sitting down with the book at your earliest convenience.



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Redemption and Violence

When I can’t thing of anything much to say about writing in general, or haven’t seen a movie, or not much rubs me right about communication technology, I, out of desperation just may post something I’ve written. This is one such night.

The following story was inspired by part of Cormac McCarthy’s cowboy trilogy, but it says something, I think, about family, about personal insecurities, what sort of social creature we decide to be – and how we redeem all of that.

It’s a story from my recent collection of short stories, published by AuthorMike Ink Publishing. I’m very grateful that Mike Aloisi liked the collection enough to publish it.




Bob Mustin


The man dropped his hunting jacket over a wall peg and sauntered to the back end of the pool hall. Shirt stretched to fullness at the shoulders, he bent his tall frame over the bar and whacked its gleaming surface with a flatted hand. Sam pushed away from the day’s newspaper and peered over his glasses.

“Shot and a beer,” the man said in a booming voice. “Two times.”

A flush of annoyance settled over Sam at the stranger’s overly loud exuberance. “Two?”

The man scratched at his jaw line, where a pair of intersecting scars lay all but hidden by a week’s worth of bristles. He nodded toward the door. “Me and my brother got us a big ol’ deer this morning.”

Sam eyed the front entrance as he poured the shots and drew the beers.

“Jeb’ll be along directly,” the man said. One hand dropped to his belt and began fingering the hilt of a broad-bladed skinning knife. “We gutted that ol’ buck in the woods, but Jeb still wanted to cut off the hind quarters and slice up the shanks. We been doing that out yonder. Been at it a while, so we decided to cut the dust and celebrate a little. I left Jeb to watch the meat. Say, you got ice?”

Sam gave the man a sour look and nodded. He found it mildly insulting for a customer to imply the need to leave someone in his parking lot to guard the day’s kill, but in truth he recognized the need for it. His pool hall was an outlier at the eastern boundary of Striven, a somber little town a twenty-minute drive off the Interstate, between Lake Martin and Opelika. An establishment often preached against in the town’s four Baptist churches and its two Methodist ones and complained about once in a great while in the Church of Saints and Sinners. Dope peddlers, hookers, and contraband sellers occasionally tried to set up shop in Sam’s parking lot. The local police rarely came in person, leaving Sam’s Place to the State Patrol’s random, bothersome visits. So Sam had learned to enforce his own version of the law, and for the most part he’d managed to keep middle Alabama’s nefarious types – and the boldest of game robbers – at bay without the taint of police help.

He looked the man up and down. “Don’t believe I know you.”

“Macabee Waters,” the man said, “but ever’body calls me Mac.” He offered a hand, and Sam took it. “That deer we got was an ol’ granddad,” Waters went on. “Sixteen points. We measured his rack at thirty-some inches across.”

Sam squinted, gave the man a slow, disbelieving headshake. “Don’t think I ever seen one that size hereabouts.”

Mac Waters threw back his whiskey and half the beer. “You want to see him?” He finished the beer, clattered the pint beer cup onto the bar, and strode, chest out, toward the door.

“You want that ice now?” Sam called out.

“Naw,” said Mac. “C’mon. We won’t be a minute.”

Sam followed.

“What’s up?” asked Donnie, one of the finest shooters ever to shark a game of eight ball at Sam’s.

“Got a big ol’ deer outside,” Mac said. He beamed as he retrieved his coat. “Y’all come on out and see it if you got a mind to.”

Donnie rolled his cue onto the table, and he and another half dozen shooters trooped out behind Sam and Mac. It was the week before Thanksgiving, an important time for hunters. Not many in the town of Striven could afford to serve up turkey on that day, or even a salted ham. Most would feast on game meat, venison more often than not. The less able hunters would serve rabbit, and a few others would make do with squirrel and dumplings, or maybe fish and hushpuppies. Thus, freshly sliced venison bestowed on everyone at Sam’s the thought of a fine holiday meal.

The day had turned glisteningly warm. Sam shaded his eyes and peered past Mac to a rusty pickup and a scar-faced man. The man, one knee to the truck bed, was busy cutting at the deer’s hindquarters. A dented camp cooler sat before him, lid open.

Mac pulled the cooler close and peered inside. The proud grin that had possessed him since he’d entered Sam’s Place fell away. “Where’s all them shank cuts?”

Jeb, who was a good bit shorter than his brother but just as beefy, didn’t look up. He wiped the long-bladed knife on a pant leg, then made three slits in the deer’s fur, peeled it back, and began slicing at the remaining flesh on the hind quarter.

“You hear me?” said Mac. “I said where’s all them shank cuts? They ain’t enough meat here to feed a five year-old. What you think I’m gonna have for Thanksgiving?”

This time Jeb wiped his blade on the deer’s fur, made a few long strokes across a whetstone, and stood. “Nelda drove by,” he said, “on her way back from Wal-Mart. She saw me and so I had her take them cuts home.”

Mac’s eyes narrowed.

“Better part of that meat’s mine,” said Jeb. “That was our deal, if you remember.”

Archie, a deep-voiced string bean customer of Sam’s, pointed to Jeb. “I know that ol’ boy. I seen him on the TV. He got sent up. Burglary, I believe it was.”

A hum of voices.

“He didn’t burgle nobody around here,” said Donnie. “We ain’t had no break-ins in years.”

“It was over in Montgomery, where we used to live,” said Mac. His glare remained fixed on Jeb. “When he got out of jail, we moved Mama and our women and kids here so’s we could live a little bit cheaper.”

“What’d he do?” someone asked.

“He broke into his own lawyer’s house,” said Mac. “The Good Lord never did give him the sense a ‘possum might have.”

Jeb’s face flushed, highlighting the web of scars on his cheeks and forehead. He stood and waggled his butcher knife. “I did my time,” he said. “I made amends.”

Mac eyed Sam, then jabbed a finger at the deer carcass. “And yet you see what he done. He stole my meat.”

Jeb’s jaw worked back and forth. He jumped to the ground. “I shot that deer. I said you could have some of it, but them shanks is mine.”

Sam studied the two, eyed Jeb’s knife and the growing crowd of onlookers. He edged from the throng, pulling Archie with him. “This might come to nothing,” he whispered, “but get back inside. If I give you the high sign, call the police.”

Archie backed away and made for the pool hall.

“I saw that deer first,” said Mac. “I pointed him out.”

“Yeah, but I shot it,” Jeb yelled. “That gives me rights.”

In a blur, Mac threw his jacket to the ground, thumbed open the sheath at his belt, pulled out the skinning knife, and flicked the blade at Jeb’s cheek, x-ing an existing scar.

Sam lurched into the space between the two brothers and shoved them apart. “Now don’t even think about it, you two.” He faced the shorter man. “Your brother ordered you a drink, and it’s sitting on the bar right now.” He turned to Mac. “So put them blades away. Come on inside and cool down.”

Mac shoved Sam. Caught unawares, Sam fell in a heap.

Jeb bellowed, made a downward pass with the butcher knife. The sleeve above his brother’s knife hand fluttered open and blood coursed. Mac winced. A rain-spatter of blood began to gather at his feet. Mac slipped the knife to his other hand.

Sam rose with the help of a pair of bystanders and waved to Archie, who disappeared inside. The two brothers slowly circled.

“Ever’body get outta the way!” Sam yelled. He began pushing at the onlookers.

Jeb swung his knife again and danced away, agile as a boxer. Mac’s shirt opened at the waist. His abdomen showed a pink welt, but only a trickle of blood. Jeb swung the butcher knife again and missed. Mac caught Jeb’s wrist with his bloody hand and made a sideways swipe with the skinning knife. A red sea gushed from Jeb’s armpit, a thin layer of adipose curling outward on both sides of the cut. His plaid shirt darkened to a sodden red.

Archie ran to Sam. “I called ‘em,” he said. “The chief cussed a blue streak, but he said they’d be here soon’s they could saddle up.”

Sam shook his head. “This ain’t good. This ain’t good at all.”

Sunlight caught the brothers’ blades as they continued to circle and slash, each knife stroke scribing long, shimmering arcs in the space between them. Then another pass of Jeb’s blade cut deep into Mac’s abdomen. Mac stumbled into the crowd. The onlookers retreated.

“Lord, no!” said a woman, she and her husband out-of–staters who had pulled into the parking lot to scan a map. She buried her face in her husband’s shoulder.

An old Chevy Malibu pulled off the highway, stereo blaring. The driver revved his engine, flung up a double line of gravel, and plunged the car into a space alongside Sam’s building. Doors flew open. Five boys burst from the car, laughing and elbowing.

Sam thrust a finger at them. “The police are coming,” he called out. “If any one of you adds to this fuss, I’ll have ‘em haul you in.”

The boys backed away.

Mac and Jeb had been orbiting at the crowd’s core, preoccupied with their wounds, a bloody oval on the gravel tracing their movement. Jeb stopped at the mention of police. He glanced contritely at Sam. “You see these scars?” he said, pointing to his face. “He done this to me.”

“Shut up,” said Mac. Another flick caught Jeb over one eye.

Jeb blinked, shook his head, sending a spray of sweat and blood into the crowd.

“I got you now,” said Mac. “You ain’t gonna run to Mama this time.”

A faint whine grew to a howl on the road from Striven. A police car hove into view, cleaving the sunny day with arcs of red light.

Jeb dodged Mac’s lunge and cut a furrow in his brother’s shoulder.

Two policemen leaped to the gravel, the first one clenching a blackjack, the other a nightstick. The first one shoved in, swung his blackjack at Mac. Jeb cursed the cop, kicked at him, then lunged at the second. He sliced the policeman’s club arm, dyeing his khaki uniform sleeve a deep crimson.

Mac had fallen with the blackjack’s glancing blow. He clambered to his feet and butted the first cop, who again raised the blackjack.

“No!” said Sam. He grabbed the cop’s arm, pulled him from the crowd, held him there. The cop struggled, but Sam’s strength was greater.

“You hit at one like that after this much blood,” said Sam, “and the other’ll always come after you.”

The policeman eyed his partner, took in his wound. He dashed for the patrol car and a first aid kit.

“Hey, scarface!” one of the five boys hooted from their car. “Cut ‘im again!” His cronies howled their agreement.

A second police car bounded into Sam’s parking lot and swerved to a stop. Wayman Tucker, Striven’s chief of police, pushed his pudgy frame to the gravel from the rider’s side. Sam left the crowd to meet him.

“What got this going?” Tucker asked.

Sam nodded toward the truck. “They got to jawing about who gets what off that deer.”

Tucker glanced to his wounded officer, the other wrapping the arm cut with a long bandage. Then Tucker eyed the two circling brothers. “Hell, I got to stop this.” He shoved into the crowd.

Sam grabbed at the chief’s arm, missed. “You can’t,” he called out. “You’ll just get pulled in.”

Mac flicked his blade. Blood spread across Tucker’s broad chest.

The chief stumbled back. He touched the cut, then looked to Sam. “This is on your property, and you ain’t controlling it.”

Sam grunted. “Things get to a point, they ain’t no controlling it.”

“Then why the hell’d you call me in?”

Sam stiffened. “Law needs to be here, I reckon, for what that’s worth.”

Tucker glared. “Then I’m gonna cite you for letting this get started.” He glanced to his cut. “And for putting the law in jeopardy like that.”

Sam spat at the chief’s feet.

The brothers were stumbling now, their clothes a canvas of tatters and ballooning stains. Their cuts yawned wide, exposing slashed muscles and pink bone. Jeb’s cut eyebrow flopped, flag-like. Below it, a clot had begun to jut. One arm hung limp against its gashed armpit. Mac’s cut shoulder slumped, the arm dangling, its strength gone. A tube of intestines peeked from his abdomen.

Donnie glanced to Sam, then to Tucker. “You ain’t gonna do nothing? These two gonna kill each other.”

The chief and his two policemen had turned slack-jawed and rapt as the fight continued. The cop with the cut arm eyed Donnie and shook his head.

“Hey!” one of the boys yelled. “Somebody cut somebody!” His friends took up the taunt.

Sam turned to the boys. “Shut up!” He turned back, pawing the ground with a boot toe and mumbling to nobody in particular.

“Jesus,” Tucker said, suddenly awake from his trance, “I can’t stand here and watch them boys snuff each other out.”

“They’re slowing down,” said Sam. “Maybe they had their fill of it.”

The brothers made ever-weaker passes with their blades. The crowd quieted.

Suddenly Jeb staggered forward. He plunged his knife into his brother’s chest. As the blade hit bone, he lost his footing. The knife jerked down, opening a long, wavering path into Mac’s abdomen. Freshly cut muscles wriggled like live wires. Mac dropped to his knees.

The chief turned to his approaching driver. “Willis, call Doc Quincey, see if he can break loose. Step on it, now!”

Willis raced off.

“That deer’s mine,” Jeb gasped.

Mac didn’t look up. “You can have it,” he croaked.

Jeb slumped against the tailgate, drooling blood. He looked to the crowd. “You heard him, didn’t you? That deer’s mine.”

“Yeah,” someone said. “It’s yours, fair and square.”

“Think you’re better,” Mac gasped. “Just ‘cause you got a mama.”

Jeb spat a long string of blood. “‘Dopted bastard.”

Mac pushed himself to his feet. “Gonna kill you.” He rose, teetering.

“You ain’t,” said Jeb. He tested the butcher knife’s edge with his thumb.

Mac slurred, “Son of a bitch.” He staggered, his knife slashing.

“He’s gonna fall!” someone said.

Mac lunged for his brother. A slight pop sounded as Jeb’s blade disappeared into Mac’s chest. The two came together. Jeb turned wild-eyed as they fell to the ground. Mac rolled away, his stubby knife like a monument in Jeb’s chest. A pink bubble appeared on Mac’s lips. He groaned, issued a final breath, and went limp.

Sam dropped to his knees and bent over Jeb. “We called the doctor, son. You hang on, you hear? He’ll be here in a minute.”

“Hurt,” said Jeb.

“I know,” said Sam. “It must hurt awful bad.”

“Here,” said Jeb, holding a quaking hand to his heart.

“You just hold on best you can,” said Sam.

“He dead?” said Jeb.

Sam glanced to Mac’s still body. “‘Fraid so.”

Jeb’s arms and legs spasmed. He groaned as the gravel ground into his back. “Going to hell,” he mumbled, “Killed my brother.”

“He had as big a hand in this as you,” said Sam. He pulled the knife from Jeb’s chest. The lung’s puncture frothed and announced a faint, bubbling whistle.

“Straight to hell,” Jeb muttered.

The boys had left their car and joined the crowd, as if pulled there by magnet force. They stared at the two mutilated bodies, their faces drawn and penitent.

A car drove up, parked next to the boys’ Chevy. A tall picket of a man climbed out, a medical bag in his hand. “All right,” he said in a deep, cigarette-hoarsened voice. “What’s been going on here?” He shoved in until he stood before Sam and the two brothers.

“Knife fight,” said one bystander.

“Never saw nothing like it,” said another.

“Killed each other,” said yet another.

Sam looked up, a scowl pressing new folds into his fleshy face. “Give Doc Quincey some room!” he yelled. Then quieter: “And have a little respect for the two on the ground.”

Doc Quincey pressed a finger to Jeb’s neck. “Why didn’t someone stop this?”

“I tried,” said Tucker, now holding a soggy wad of gauze to his cut. “They wouldn’t have any of it.”

Sam set a hand on Jeb’s chest. “I guess you could say this one finished it.”

The doctor fingered open one of Jeb’s eyes. Jeb squirmed feebly with the surge of light.

“He won’t make it,” said Quincey. “Pulse is too weak. He’s lost too much blood.”

Jeb sighed and expired.

“He’s gone?” Sam asked.

Quincey looked up. “Yes.”

Sam picked up Mac’s hunting jacket and draped it over Jeb’s head. Then he rose, eyes sparking as he looked to each face in the crowd. “I guess you all got an eyeful, huh?”

A wave of mumbles passed through the onlookers.

“You see what happens?” Sam said. “It ain’t exactly the sporting affair you figured it for, now is it? Hellfire, folks, nobody wins a fight like this.”

Tucker broke a long silence. “I still got to cite you,” he said to Sam. “Get on inside so I can write you up proper.”

Sam kicked at the gravel. “I tole you, law don’t work in this sort of situation.” He turned again to the crowd. “I’m closing up shop for a few days, so get on home.” He lumbered toward the steps to his place. Tucker lurched along behind, blood from the soaked wad of gauze dripping from his fingers. Quincey followed.

When the door had closed behind the three, a man in the crowd pointed to the bodies and said, “They wasn’t brothers. Not really.”

“They was,” said Donnie. “Don’t you know nothing? They killed each other over a deer. A dang deer! If they wasn’t brothers, do you think they’d of carried it that far?”

Beware of the Hiccups


It’s been my experience – from my own writing and workshopping and editing others – that most problems – call them hiccups – for writers working on novels come in three places:

  • the beginning
  • the middle
  • the end

I don’t really have tongue in cheek as I write this, and, no, I don’t mean writers have problems with the whole thing. But let’s take a brief look at this:

  • The beginning: you’ll invariably get a comment from an editor that, despite starting knee deep in the action or characterizations, you should’ve started later. There’s a balance point to this, though. If you start too far in, everything you write will seem anticlimactic. But starting somewhere within the story, at a place of conflict, will give the reader an idea of what lies before him/her in resolving conflict or completing characterization. Prologues are somewhat frowned on now, but if they seem necessary, make sure they don’t give away the farm.
  • The middle: I can’t count the times, particularly in literary novels, that once I’ve settled into reading the book, say 100 or so pages in, the novel seems to be marking time. I call this the Kansas of the novel – – nothing but rolling terrain and miles of nothing but corn. This is where many readers lose interest. Minor conflicts/character revelations, etc. are the perfect meat to keep readers turning pages here.
  • The ending: Short story writers will tell you to reach the conclusion and then get outta Dodge. This is good advice for novels, too, but the ending can be drawn out a bit. Remember literary modernity would have you leaving the ending a bit up in the air, so don’t keep on keeping on.


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The Thing About Novellas


Novellas, such as Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs, seem to be way more popular outside the U.S., and I don’t understand why.

What does a novella offer the casual reader?

  • a concise story
  • a quick read
  • a small but memorable cast of characters.

Think of the novella, then as a short, three-act play.


But if you don’t want your reading spoon-fed, if you want literary merit to go along with entertainment value, what does a well-written novella offer?

  • the depth of poetry
  • deceptive complexity
  • much for the reader to infer, i.e., offers the reader a place in the story.

The best novellas urge re-reading, peeling away the onion of meaning that lies before you, much as the best poetry begs you to read, and re-read, and re-read…


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The Writer’s Temperament

Okay, you’ve dabbled at poetry. You’ve written a short story or two, and then you’ve been fortunate and had a memoir piece published. Now you’re considering a novel. Okay, so what are you: poet? Short story writer? Memoirist? Novelist?


I tried a parse these questions in this post, perhaps successfully. Perhaps not. But every writer needs to know his/her temperament. i.e., one needs to know oneself, the filter through which the words and stories come.

Take the time to do that. It’ll make your writing stronger.



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Making Characters Real



Chad Harbach’s book, The Art of Fielding, has been both praised and panned, the pan, I suppose, because it doesn’t come across at first as serious writing, the praise because it’s damned entertaining. But what makes it entertaining? It’s characters.

Characterization has to seem real, even when it’s slightly exaggerated, and the cast of characters should be a coherent whole – among themselves and within the context of story. Harbach does this, and with great skill. Check out this book, read it, not once but twice, and see if I’m not right.



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