Shooting Side Glances, by John Greiner

by HRM on August 2, 2011

Book review by Nafkote Tamirat

Portrait of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg by Carrie CrowIn John Greiner’s collection of short stories, Shooting Side Glances, the cast of characters ranges from a criminal lusting after a gray homburg that he may or may not have seen in Vienna, a woman who is trying to get downtown – “any downtown will do” – and a mother who may have accidentally killed her son as a result of not feeding the birds. Within these snapshots of daily life, set in a New York whose inhabitants writhe in the throes of destructive insanity, Greiner takes a much-mythologized locale and focuses on boroughs, bars, events and people whom we rarely meet in fiction. There’s a Coney Island where “there is no one about to light a match for a dead cigarette butt, or raise an eyebrow if the shiv slices through the spleen” [Three Thieves and the Carpet King] and a Hudson that is the only witness to a forgotten dogcatcher’s maniacal laughter.

Greiner’s fresh perspective is enhanced by the frank (and often funny) instances of extreme violence: brothers are bloodlessly bludgeoned to death by baseball bats, boyfriends’ wrists are broken, and pre-dinner conversations revolve around matters of flagellation: “‘I’ll give it to you without any bullshit, I want it Papa Alexander VI with roasted chestnuts and the best looking ladies that the Vatican has. I want de Sade in a frenzied Warsaw brothel circa September 1939’” (from Before Dinner at the St. Regis).

While such behavior might be regrettable, these spurts of intense mayhem are described as though they are merely hiccups in the daily routine. Greiner’s language is complex and meaty, with his characters discussing Saint George and the merits of a woman named Milena in elevated language, where one often trips over the transports of poetic wordplay: “‘She’s the whip of the fallen angel redeemed…Before Milena I was just a Harvard boy who made out in Cambridge closets with socialites never to be, but now I’m the father of the salvo that showers cities not yet born on blueprints’” (from Milena). As such, each moment and scene is pushed into a higher register from where it begins.

Nevertheless, it is this propensity for abstruse language that sometimes renders the reading process more difficult than enjoyable: many of the stories are quite short, the longest only a few pages, and with such intense imagery and discourse, it’s difficult to understand what is actually happening in the storytelling. We are wrenched from one narrative landscape into another, with little time to fully inhabit and comprehend each story’s frame of existence. This is particularly frustrating because the gorgeous language often obscures the concreteness of objects and events, even after multiple readings: “It’ll be a delight to watch the miscreant generation fall. I’m its castrated father. When I got off of the operating table I took a nip of the sour milk from the udders of need. It started to pour out with the tears of the mother’s loss and I had to soak it up on a dirty sponge so that no one would slip” (from Shower Show).

Ultimately, perusal of these stories is well worth the effort, but it’s one with touch and go benefits and little cohesion among the pieces and within the reading experience itself.


Shooting Side Glances is free online out of ISMs Press in Manchester.  You can read it HERE.

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