by Vanessa Blakeslee
(Burrow Press, 145 p.)
About halfway through “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” one of the eleven stories that make up Vanessa Blakeslee’s fine debut collection, Train Shots, a woman, after receiving a telephone tip, drives to a ramshackle Costa Rican town to retrieve a handful of dogs recently stolen from her property. She brings along one of her maids, as well as a firearm. Their destination is a dirty, graffiti covered soda; the area is riddled with junkies. Danger is in the air.
As a reader, one imbibes this scene—the pleading, urgent phone tip; the trepidation on the part of the travelers; the slow walk into the soda—and warning bells chime. Before the woman’s heart can be broken by a dangerous red herring (her dogs are not, in fact, waiting for her inside) we’re already nervously chattering, as if we’re in a crowded, dark movie theater, telling the hero of a horror film to stay away from that grim basement.
Time and again, characters in Train Shots make bad decisions, and yet, unlike a horror film’s “final girl,” who wanders aimlessly into danger, Blakeslee brilliantly crafts peril around everyday emotions: hope, trust, faith. If there’s a thread that ties this wildly diverse collection together, it’s that far too often, we’re blinded by our wishes for humanity. We step into the darkness without fear and make senseless mistakes. We fail to recognize a problem until it’s too late.
And this thread is what makes the volume so incredibly interesting, as it spotlights the way one of the greatest rules we’re taught as children, to believe in your fellow man, can backfire. In “Don’t Forget the Beignets,” a relationship spirals in New Orleans when a woman’s fiancé is arrested for tax evasion. “Had he been lying all along?” the omniscient narrator wonders. “What else had he been keeping from her?” “Barbecue Rabbit,” the most frightening story of the collection, finds a mother desperately trying to reach her troubled son, ignoring all of the signs of the boy’s slow descent into anger and psychosis.
Even when a protagonist spends most of her narrative alone, as the Britney Spears-esque singer does in “The Princess of Pop,” these ideas continue to burn through the page. As the star lingers in a hotel room, contemplating suicide, she reflects on the fatigue that comes from fame, the cruelty that follows success. Downing pills and drinking vodka, she considers her lost childhood:
For years, since becoming famous, the Princess of Pop dreamed about those early days in Orlando. She dreamed about going back and visiting a girl her age with long brown hair, just an ordinary girl she might have been friends with for the brief time she attended a normal high school, but she didn’t know if the girl was someone real or imaginary.
Like other characters, the Princess of Pop wanders into the darkness based on faith, on hope, on desire, and it’s not until she’s lost in the murk that she realizes her missteps.
While many of the stories in Train Shots take on rather traditional structure, with killer opening lines like “A dozen years ago, the doctors took my lung” (“The Lung”) and straightforward momentum, satisfying moments of quirk also punctuate. It’s here that Blakeslee turns her sights to the reader, luring us as she does her protagonists. A character pens a book on gastric bypass surgery in one tale, while a small figurine of Jesus takes center stage in another. These unusual flashes elevate an already-interesting narratives, keeping the reader off-balance and offering surprise when it’s least expected. As readers, we’re lulled by Blakeslee’s talent for structure: we trust for the path to be smooth, for the ship to remain steady. We let our guard down, we expect for the author to safely lead us into the grim basement. And only then does she pounce.