Welcome to a world that’s a bit bleaker even than our own, where desolation is the daily bread and death more common than kindness. By my rough guesstimate, in total we’ve got about twenty-five corpses on our hands, not to mention all those rueful folks still bleeding by the side of the road. This makes reading Chris Deal’s new collection Incarnations feel sort of like strolling through an incredibly well-written morgue. But don’t worry. There’s plenty of coffee, cerveza, and cigarettes, so even though it’s a morgue, it’s the kind of place you could crash or chill at for an evening or two. Just don’t get comfortable.
Incarnations contains twenty-six stories, ranging in length from one paragraph to nine pages, with an average length of four pages. The speed at which these stories can be read belies their dark emotional weight. In general, they can be divided into two camps: they’re either morbid, slightly noir-ish tales of intrigue or short, earnest studies of doom.
“Halfway Crooks” is one of the best examples of the noir-ish bent. The narrator is driving with Doyle to a “dead field” in the dark of night. Over eight pages, they banter about old times, with the narrator remembering his ravaged boyhood and father’s funeral. They talk about the past like it could be something other than it was. Every few paragraphs, Deal explores a new mix of emotions; by the end, there’s a wealth of feelings. We experience the charity of nostalgia and know the uselessness of regret.
Clocking in at three pages, “The Sea of Trees” is a concise study of suicide. “They came from all over to this forest,” the narrator tells us while searching the corpses for credit cards and cash, “like it was something romantic to die here.” The bodies are everywhere—hanging from trees, slumped against stumps—and the narrator’s made a part-time job out of plundering them. This is until the narrator gets lost in “a flood of blackness” that “gave no sign of letting me go,” since in Deal’s world once we taste death it gobbles us whole.
In both the longer and shorter stories, Deal chronicles the unrepentant darkness of brutal nature and daily devastation, where “[e]ach night held little possibility of morning.” Violence occurs with prosaic regularity. Deal excels at dramatizing action in a stylized manner, which is no easy feat. Consider this: “The hammer fell on the chambered bullet, and it passed through Adolfo’s head and shattered the plate-glass window on the dead man’s front door.” This sentence manifests the bullet’s journey—by concluding with the possessive (dead man’s), we see the moment of death occurring sometime between the words head and dead. Such rapid action, with the violence so well visualized, requires a potent concision that few writers can consistently and effectively pull off.
The settings reflect the stories’ harsh theme. At times, however, there’s a too perfect alignment of diction, mood, and content. When we read about the “dying sun” in the second paragraph of “Fata Morgana,” or when we’re told that Pela’s skin is “pale like a dying moon,” there’s the sense that Deal is overdoing it. With this much actual death, it’d be best not to use the word as an adjective quite so much. The risk here is monotony. By evoking settings and scenes in such a similar manner, with constant descriptions of hard-earned bitterness and the empty heavens, Deal is occasionally in danger of drowning out the life in these stories because he draws them all in the same way—in a thick charcoal gray. Descriptive details that are amazing in isolation can become dull when looked at in the aggregate. Another way to say this is, don’t people suffer and die on sunny Thursday afternoons too?
We must respect the singularity of Deal’s vision while also acknowledging its limitations, especially in the shorter stories. A two-pager like “Let the Bells Ring,” in which a man troops through a snowy cemetery, is bland when to compared to the longer, more complex works. On an individual sentence level Deal is superb, but overall sometimes he leans toward the lugubrious. For example, a sentence such as—“Morris was alone in the nothing, and that was more atrocious than his assured annihilation.“—leaves little room for wonder, mystery, or confusion in the reader’s mind. What’s lacking in these shorter stories is dissonance—which is a fascinating aesthetic quality. By dissonance, I mean curious disagreements between those three key elements of diction, mood, and content. Dark stories are often more powerful when they’re not told strictly through dark, portentous language. More dissonance would enrich these already well-crafted stories, creating opportunities for strangeness and surprise. Deal is incredibly good at writing in heavy, damningly dramatic style. But looking at the collection as a whole, it’s worthwhile to ask: When is he a writer of hellish originality and when does he stay too long in his own comfort zone?
All that said, there’s no denying the ferocity of Deal’s vision. Plus, his descriptions of smoking are fantastic and will make even the most nicotine-free reader long for a cornhusk cigarette. And the final story, “Castle,” is a stunner. So if you’ve got a moment and would fancy strolling through a world where “the time from dusk to dawn stretched on forever,” then step right in to this alluring nightmare.
Snag Incarnations from Broken River Books
Photographs by Derek Sapienza