It is no secret to anyone that I am one of the world's biggest fans of Zelmer Pulp, that crazy collective of writers who specialize in "retro-futuristic, pulp hero, dark crime, monster noir, and neoclassical post-apocalyptic multi-generation uber-exploitive psychodrama." As a matter of fact, I think I'll declare myself as Zelmer Pulp's #1 fan. Got a problem with that? Leave a comment and prove yourself to me. If you prove me wrong, I'll delete your comment and pretend it never happened.
Where was I? Ah, yes -- Zelmer. Sayles, Panowich and company are some of my favorites in this business of ours. As far as I'm concerned, when there's a new Zelmer Pulp release, people had better pay attention. Therefore, when I discovered that Zelmer was teaming up with Gutter Books (one of the best publishers in the noir/crime field) to bring an anthology of songs based on the music of Bruce Springsteen, I was so excited that my body went into hibernation until I got a review copy. The book is now in my hands and I have risen from my cave. Was it everything I hoped it would be? No, it wasn't.
It was better than that! (See what I did there?) There is something to be said for the inherent noir nature of Bruce Springsteen's songs. I'm not going to talk about that. Chances are, you already know that. If not, I encourage you to delve into that yourself. Me? I came here to review books and make references to cult movies and I'm all outta references!
Trouble in the Heartland is like a Greatest Hits of crime/noir. Almost everyone you can think of is included within the pages of this volume. In fact, my sole criticism of Trouble is going to be that word "almost." There are some puzzling absences (Mike Monson, for one) of some of my favorite writers but generally speaking everyone is here. What do I mean by that? Here is just HALF the list...
Dennis Lehane, Dyer Wilks, Tom Pitts, Chuck Wendig, Rob Pierce, David James Keaton, Ryan Sayles, Chris F. Holm, Les Edgerton, Todd Robinson, Ezra Letra, Jen Conley, Richard Thomas, Chuck Regan, Court Merrigan, Chris Rhatigan, Steve Weddle, Hilary Davidson, Chris Irvin and Jordan Harper.
Again, folks -- this is just HALF of the authors in this anthology. I'll leave you to discover the rest of the names yourselves. Of course, the inclusion of all the authors in all the world wouldn't matter if the stories were bogus. Luckily, you're in for some terrific tales when you pick up Trouble in the Heartland. I'll give you the rundown on ten of these tracks.
"Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" by Ezra Letra -- Letra's a guy who is new to me. He's a dude who wears so many hats (writer, rapper, photographer, producer, graphic designer, and more) that it's a wonder he manages to keep any one of them on his head. I'm here to tell you, though, that he's got the talent. His story here is just a small slice of life of a guy who knows a hard life. "We knew at any moment we could be left with nothing, but fuck it, we had nothing else." Ezra Letra is a guy to watch and you should let this be your introduction. After you read the story, visit his website. Listen to his music. Tell him the Chronicler sent you.
"The Iceman" by Les Edgerton -- "I shot her. Twice." Bam! Edgerton's story gets you right in the gut immediately. That shouldn't surprise any fan of good noir or crime fiction, though, because Les Edgerton is one of the best writers alive. That sounds like hyperbole but, if you've read things from him like The Bitch, you know it isn't. Here, Edgerton tells a story about a lady who thinks she knows everything about her husband. Spoiler: she doesn't. This one will kick your ass.
"Mansion on the Hill" by Chris F. Holm -- Again, Holm is a guy that everyone knows I dig. I covered his Collector book over at my old blog and even scored an interview with the man himself. Here, he spins a yarn about a guy who loves the ladies. Of course, this is crime anthology so you know nothing is as it seems. As the story says, "Love's a funny thing."
"The Promised Land" by Court Merrigan -- Merrigan tells a story of revenge, in a sense. It's also a story about people looking to use other people. It's a story about how unfair life can be. However, when the land is full of people screwing over other people, there is a lot of opportunity for someone who walks tall and carries a big stick.
"Prove it all Night" by Jordan Harper -- Harper is another name in this anthology that I didn't know before but it's definitely a name that I will be remembering. "Prove it all Night" is about two young lovers on a criminal spree straight to Hell. "One two three four five gas stations and liquor stores before four a.m." What's left at the end of it all is blood, sweat, and maybe, just maybe, a little yearning for the old bad times when all the wrong choices were still left unmade.
"Highway Patrolman" by Ryan Sayles -- I've already talked about my fondness for Ryan Sayles. Apart from being one of the Zelmer guys, he's a hell of a writer by himself. He's got a story forthcoming in my own pulp magazine Dark Corners. Here, Sayles (one of my favorites) writes a crime story (one of my favorite genres) that involves New Orleans (my favorite place). To make things even better, the story is full of language so carefully and perfectly chosen that you will re-read sentences just to hear them again in your head. "Reds and yellows and blues and whites shimmer, flapping every time God breathes along the subtle incline of the graveyard." Like so many other writers in this anthology, Sayles uses the hell out of his instrument. He's a consummate wordsmith.
"Radio Nowhere" by Chuck Regan -- Another story, another Zelmer crew member. Regan does great sci-fi and here is no exception. Regan also does the great cover art that graces this anthology. When it comes to his fiction, though, what I love so much about Regan is that he does the sort of pulp fiction I loved as a kid. It's the sort of stuff that sparked my obsession with reading and writing. Regan seems to have a limitless imagination. He's a bold writer and he takes you, the reader, places you haven't been before. How many times is that actually true for a writer? It's true here, friends. Read this one twice.
"Wrecking Ball" by Chris Rhatigan -- "I need fire running through my veins for this." If you've read Rhatigan's The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other, you know his unique brand of funny, badass noir. His story in this anthology is more of the same from Rhatigan which is to say that you'll laugh and you won't believe what you're reading. Rhatigan's characters are not good people but you'll never forget them. You just strap in and try to hold on for the ride.
"Local Hero" by Tom Pitts -- Also joining the anthology is Tom Pitts, author of Piggyback and Hustle. He writes with a knowledge of the darker, harder side of life that a lot of other writers simply don't possess. His story in this anthology is about what its like to be a hero in a thankless world. As one character says, "You think you're special? Because you can throw a fucking baseball?", but this ain't a story about just baseball. It's a story about small towns and pain, blood and anger. It's a story that'll make you look at Piggyback and Hustle on your shelf and make you pick them up again. I don't even want to think about the possibility of someone not having those on their shelf. If that is the case, you know what to do.
"State Trooper" by Dennis Lehane -- This is, no doubt, the story that a lot of folks are gonna be talking about, and for good reason. Lehane is a popular writer. Here, at least, he's also a damn good one. "State Trooper" is the sort of story that doesn't tell you anything you don't need to know. It's far longer than the other pieces in this anthology but it doesn't outstay its welcome. In many ways, this story being first sets the stage for the rest of the stories to follow. That's also why I am talking about it last. A little bit of the themes that I have talked about in the other stories are present here. You've got a simple scenario, one that doesn't have to lead to violence and heartbreak. Of course, it will. Lehane doesn't even show you the violence. That would be too much. He doesn't have to hold your hand and he's sure as hell not going to. Instead, he sets everything up, lets you see whats coming, and then he leaves you in the dirt. All you really need to know is about Dale's (our main character) luck. "Most of his life" Dale's luck had been "glass-half-empty or glass-never-fucking-was". Those words are all you need to know. You know how this story goes, you've heard it before. However, like a good reliable rock band, you can count on the experience.
That's ten of these tracks, ten of forty. Does that mean I only enjoyed these ten? Not in the slightest. This is one of the most enjoyable fiction anthologies you are likely to encounter this year. Editor Joe Clifford and the other folks that worked on this one have something to be proud of. If anyone reading this review has any doubt when I say that we are living in a golden age of pulp fiction, they have only to pick up this one volume when it is released and be ushered into a world of great, dark, amazing stories. I promise that you will be grateful that you got this one and I can guarantee that there will be at least one writer here whose work you will want to better familiarize yourself with after you've closed the book. So says the Pulp Chronicler, this one's a MUST own.