Short Bus

By Brian Allen Carr


Texas Review Press
March 2011

Reviewed by Laura Ender


Brian Allen Carr's debut collection Short Bus is a book that demands to be read twice, with nearly every story offering some sort of illumination of the others. It is a book that firmly inhabits its own world: dirty, hot, and damaged; peopled with the maimed and malformed. The stories thread together through common characters, so that on a second read a whole new layer of detail reveals itself. Each story seems to build on another, though not necessarily the one that preceded it.

Short Bus begins with a story called "Running the Drain," which sets the rough, poetic tone of the book and its border setting, and follows it up with "Not Hearing the Jingle," a piece that works, in many ways, like a poem. The language is poetic:

I remember the wind stained by white dust that'd blow in from the parched citrus orchard beyond, so the air, powdered and grainy, struck your eyes as an accident may, as though the world would swing up like a mess of barbed wire uncoiled from its post.

"Not Hearing the Jingle" also takes on something of a four-stanza structure, moving through association toward and away from the central characters instead of following a more traditional plot arc. "Traditional" hardly describes Carr's style. Several pieces toy with fragmentation through numbered sections, hard POV shifts, and expository dialogue in place of narration. One story does seem to attempt a traditional arc—the title story, "Short Bus," in which a young man becomes a special education teacher—and it seems that, in introducing a concrete problem and an attempt at a solution, Carr interprets "tradition" as "cliché" by sending his characters to rob a bank in order to get tuition money for a student who cannot afford to stay at the school . This plot choice undermines the tenderness that has been building throughout the story by pushing on movie-style action in order to come to a conclusion. "Whisper to Scar" also provides a beginning, middle, and end, but in a more complex way. This piece moves smoothly as it follows a father who, in many ways, hates his own child: 

He's got a bad smell. Nothing keeps him clean. His body rejects itself, sending beads of sweat racing out pores as he sits. He's a slimy bubble of lard, with the heavy-pepper reek of obesity from mayonnaise. I wish he weren't my son.

"Whisper to Scar" is the most moving piece in the collection, and one of the easiest to read. Next in line is the closing story, "Baby Grand Dangle," which suffers slightly from the intrusion of a character who seems to tie the collection together, Jardon, and a long anecdote he tells the main character that doesn't really move the story forward. That intrusion aside, the story's characters are well drawn, especially if you remember the hints of them that appear in earlier stories. Carr deftly uses dark humor to balance despair:

I imagine the see-through fetus in Meredith's belly hears me coming. Perhaps he's put his ear against the womb and is twisting his mustache with his fingers.

Carr's sense of humor is most apparent, though, in some of the shorter pieces in the book, like "Accident Finger," in which his narrator elicits laughs through his simple but strange interpretation of the world. In "Germs From Blood," Carr practically channels Quentin Tarantino, following the mostly inane chatter of two hit men as they complete a job. "Tuxedo" is basically one long, dirty joke: comic relief amid the book's many portrayals of damage and despair.

Though Carr's world is gritty and a bit grotesque, Short Bus manages a lot of beauty. Carr's language can take something ugly and transform it. In "Hot Mess," he sees a chain-smoking mother through her son's eyes: "In all my memories smoke pours from her smile. I used to think she made the clouds." In "Water-Filled Jugs," his character tattoos a human skull with pencil flowers. Carr finds details that many might miss, and expresses them with an unexpected sort of elegance. For the language alone, Short Bus is worth reading. There are some interesting stories in there, too.