Review ‘The Cards We Keep’ by James Duncan

Cards We Keep Cover

I really enjoyed this short story collection. It had me highly entertained and the pages went very quick, in almost an addictive manner.

There’s an argument that often pops up on writing websites, in message board threads, in conversation, that centers around “genre fiction vs. literary fiction”.

The general claim by lit. fiction writers being that genre fiction doesn’t hold any artistic value and that by nature it’s formulaic plot structures and hokey dialogue and stereotypical characters can’t hold a candle to their counterparts found in literary fiction.

Genre fiction writers point out that lit. fiction is too flowery, takes itself too seriously and that people who don’t write just want a good read, they don’t care about a curtain fluttering in the breeze, ect.

Of course, there’s a place in the middle between all things, genre vs. lit. and The Cards We Keep is a good example of how it can be done to appease people on both sides of the fence, keeping the art very much alive, and keeping the entertainment right there in equal doses.

James Duncan’s The Cards We Keep is a collection of wonderfully written genre-fiction short stories that takes on a wide variety of genres, purposefully, and carries them through to succession with some sharp writing, interesting characters, and non-formulaic plotting.
The great fun of this collection is seeing how many genres the short stories can cross in just 160 some odd pages. There’s the story about the private eye and his investigation of a cold blooded killing with a pearl handled knife to the neck; the hobo who wanders the countywide with his train hopping traveling companions; the horror story, “Weeds” about a lawn maintenance man whose brother holes up in city hall with a gun because his wife’s eyes have changed and he thinks they are eating his life; There’s the story of two weathered hit men hanging out in an empty restaurant (reminiscent of the one from Goonies) waiting for their mark to show up with $10,000; then there’s “Due to an Earlier Incident” the sci-fi story of a near future bounty hunter who is patrolling NYC with a massive neuro gun at his hip. It’s all here. Ten stories, that dip in and out of specific genres for a little while examining what the genre is, and what it means as a device to tell an entertaining story.

The Cards We Keep is the opposite of Seinfeld storytelling, which thrived on the idea that, good writing can make “a show about nothing”. Which is how I’d describe most literary fiction. A well done George Saunders short story is about nothing and everything at the same time. James Duncan’s Cards We Keep is a book about the bigger things beyond the characters. Dialogue here is not offhand, it is all pointedly delivered, sometimes even revved up larger than life, with it seems, the author knowingly poking fun at the pulp fiction attributes of the style he is writing in and also paying homage to. There’s never a gun too far away from the plot lines in James Duncan’s collection. Sometimes the women meet a fist. The dogs are always nameless mutts, everyone is guilty of B & E. Jumping a train and riding it towards a circus town is not just a romantic thought, but a real possibility.
Really, most of the writing calls back to dime store detective novels (in the best ways), and there’s a tone of the dusty 40s time period feel to most of this, all the girls are gals or dames. The men long for steaks and cold beers.

Part of the joy, and overall entertainment of these stories is not only guessing what will be the ‘twist’ towards resolution at the end of the ‘tale’, but what does the next story coming up on the next page offer. Will it be set in the Old West? Will we be venturing to Mars? Is someone going to plan a heist at a racetrack.

There’s something very pleasent in that.

The real twist of the collection comes in the final story, Luanne of Los Angeles which itself steps out from the entire genre-fiction overhang, and takes a look at the writer himself as a protagonist, and how when he was a kid, he wanted to be a hobo. In Luanne of Los Angeles, the major plot points are stripped, the guns and hit men are gone, what’s left is closer to real life. Love. Sickness. Worry. It stands closer to Raymond Carver than Phillip Dick, a testament to James Duncan’s understanding of what good writing is, as a writer, editor and reader.

The Cards We Keep does something very interesting to close the book. Duncan has included notes to accompany each story in the collection, giving a ‘behind the scenes’ that gives a glimpse into the inner workings of where the idea came for the story, for instance, the story The Toybox, has an interesting scene in it about where the protagonist explains the tension with his brother and his youth in general because he would be out with his family, and would see police lights passing, he’d imagine that the killer was already at his house, hiding in the toybox at the end of his bed.

That sums up the overall feel of the collection itself. There’s a darkness in all of these stories, hiding just around the corner. Whether it’s a dead body rotting behind an apartment door; the imminent disintegration of a marriage, physical violence at the drop of a dime, the weight of a gun in the pocket.

This one is recommended. Read more about it here
purchase it here


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