Joe Clifford isn’t your everyday writer. His stories aren’t for quiet family times, with young cheerful faces turned innocently to the light. Nor are they for the faint-of-heart, or those who believe that all human beings basically want to do the right thing.
They’re for readers who don’t flinch or look away. Who can take a simple tale of murder, deceit, violence, perpetrated by men and women whose moral values got dumped about a hundred miles back. Clifford’s characters aren’t deep thinkers, nor do they spend much time on self-analysis. For the most part they’re drifters, losers, and down on their luck. While they tend not to blame others for their troubles, they don’t work all that hard to improve their lots, either.
The stories in Choice Cuts are short, swift, and often brutal. But they’re also elegant and richly detailed, with an overlay of hard-boiled crime fiction from an earlier era. Meet Sam Spade, trying to tie up loose ends in The Maltese Falcon. Meet the hard-working, desperate cop, Sargent Mark Dixon, in Where The Sidewalk Ends. This is noir, at its best. One piece in particular, Tripping for Biscuits, is about a young man so obsessed with this genre of film that he undergoes a risky operation to remove the ability to perceive color from his eyes, which are described as being an usual and incredibly beautiful blue.
One of my favorites is Nix Verrida, a painful, anguished tale of a man suffering so badly from post-traumatic stress disorder that his perception – or lack thereof – takes both him and the reader into a surrealistic sort of Twilight Zone.
Another standout is Red Pistachios. This had special appeal to me as a writer. The protagonist, also a writer, is on a long, downward spiral of stalled work, failed relationships, and booze. He manages to turn things around with the unwitting help of one of his students. When the student turns up after a long absence, the author naturally assumes he’s come to collect a debt. The author takes care of the problem neatly, and predictably.
A lot of problems in these stories are solved the same way. But this collection is about so much more than crime. It’s about truth, and pain, and simply accepting that life – and our small, insignificant place in it – are subject to spectacular failure. The characters in Clifford’s stories don’t want your sympathy. They want to be seen for who are, with no apologies offered.