Three Ways of the Saw

By Matt Mullins

Atticus Books
February 2012

Reviewed by Mark Staniforth


The tough, bleak world conjured by Matt Mullins in Three Ways Of The Saw is one in which beat-up couples take aimless road trips in search of a kind of salvation. It's a world that boils with the pain of lost youth; a world in which history is as irrelevant as a bunch of old photos flitting down an interstate highway and the future is already halfway to a mess-up. It's about our failure to make the most of the here-and-now.

Three Ways Of The Saw is split loosely into three parts: the first, "Black Sheep Missives," follows the coming-of-age of the outcast son of a devoutly Catholic family. The second, "Dischords," is a jumble of tales concerning assorted American misfits. The third, "Ghost Limbs," claws deeper into fractured relationships and unfulfilled dreams.

It's not an easy book to read, either in subject matter or style, but then it was never intended to be filed under glossy Oprah Book Club-lite. Mullins writes with an eye for the everyday travails of ordinary folk. He is unafraid to experiment with language and narrative form. In that sense, this collection avoids being lumped in with the forests of conventional, Bukowski-clone paeans to a nation's down-and-outs.

Mullins's characters are deliberately stripped of color in much the same way as James Franco successfully portrayed the youth of Palo Alto in his debut, Palo Alto. His stories sometimes use the second person, which only serves to add to the sense of nihilism, and imbues the stories with a very personal effect: while you despise many of his characters, you can't help pulling for them. What Mullins seems to be saying is that but for a handful of better choices along the way, this could be all of us.

In "No Prints, No Negatives," a young boy is hauled across the continent in a fruitless quest to fulfill his folks' vague notion of the American Dream. They're doing it just because they ought to; because if they drive for long enough, they might just reach the light. It begins: "The first time I heard my dad say fuck we were driving through Utah in a rented Winnebago. I was thirteen, and my dad believed I was ready to learn what it meant to be an American." When their Winnebago is broken into and their entire trip-long collection of photographs is stolen, the nameless central character muses on the possibility that without such tangible memories, the road trip, and their history, may have ceased to exist:

I can feel them [the photos] traveling down the byways of junk and discarded things that pulse just below the surface of this nation. They're part of the underbelly, mixed in with the refuse of those people and places most of us just avoid or pretend not to see.

Rifts rip like chasms through this collection, from generational conflicts between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, to quietly warring couples for whom no hours of interstate driving will bring them closer, and the sad thing is they know it even as they continue to strobe through the gloom. In "Moon With Princess," a young man begins to bridge the gap when he uncovers his father's fascinating past as a newspaper reporter. In "Bad Juju," the book's stand-out story, a doomed young couple head for New Orleans, where he hopes to get engaged and she hopes to haul in the performer in a piano bar. From the first line you know things are going to turn out anything but all right.

In "Getting Beaten," a lonely young man, missing the fun and friends of his fading college days, cruises the interstate as an excuse to listen to the college football game on the radio, and is eventually embroiled in a road rage incident:

You saw them almost every day for ten years, partied, hung out, road tripped, all that wild youth bullshit. You even managed to keep it up for those first few years after graduation. Now, between everybody's jobs and moving and their serious girlfriends or wives, you're lucky if you can all get together once a month. Soon, the babies will start arriving, and that will be that.

Not all of Mullins's experimental shards work so well, but when they do, they shine. What his more unconventional pieces do is alter the pace of this challenging collection. As criticisms go, the suggestion that this book may have benefited from being a little thinner is a minor one. The sheer monotony of his characters' broken lives can come to weigh you down. It is to Mullins' enduring credit, however, that they always leave plenty to ponder.