Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
by Barry Gifford
Reviewed by Christopher Matthew Jensen
Though his stories are built upon the seedier sides of human nature, one gets the feeling that Barry Gifford is comfortable in the dark recesses of society. Sketched without shame or glory, Gifford's Sad Stories of the Death of Kings takes an almost documentarian approach to the tiny triumphs and gigantic pratfalls of its characters.
Fans of Gifford's popular Sailor and Lula novels will instantly recognize the style and substance of Sad Stories, a novel told through forty-two short stories in the life of a budding writer named Roy. The most obvious narrative anchor for Gifford is film noir, but there's a little Hemingway in his stride, a little Faulkner in his vision, and a definite smattering of Raymond Carver in his imagination.
Gifford's prose is crisp and leathery, tough yet flexible, fanciful in its ease but utilitarian in its staunch opposition to the superfluous syllable. Most of the stories here range from two to five pages in length, yet the plots within that tight space could generate entire books -- or perhaps adventure movies, which our protagonist Roy likes so much.
The stories are set in the Polish district of postwar Chicago, the tougher side of an era unfairly canonized by television and movies as "simpler times." Roy is coming of age in a culture of scraping by, and he stumbles toward maturity through encounters with a wilted bouquet of the human condition -- eccentrics, perverts, delinquents, delusionals, and other frail specimens of humanity, always warped by something, and usually headed toward a strange and grisly end.
Much like the Sailor and Lula series, Sad Stories thrives off its parade of memorable characters. Among the most memorable are prizefighter James "The Sultan" Word, a scrappy former contender who literally never stopped smiling; Sharkface Bensky, a zipper-nosed punching bag for the local mafia; and Cousin Sid, a man who actually believes he has swallowed and therefore lost everything that he cannot directly see at any given moment. Each is brought to life through finely chiseled dialogue, ranging from street corner teen chirpings to intimate moments of casual wisdom. With the looming threat of violence and danger hanging in the air at all times, Roy remains mostly an inquisitive observer, evading the fray as a wide-eyed child plumbing each experience for a nugget of truth.
Each vignette in Sad Stories is a window into another troubled individual's reality. Like an ontology of snow globes, miniature worlds are lined up sequentially to reveal a twisted and unpredictable existence that obliterates the philosophical impulse to wonder why. To young Roy, such profundities are a luxury, as he is more concerned with "how": How to live? How to be good? How to be happy? How to evade being sucked in and pulled under by the comedy of errors around him?
Gifford is too smart to give us the answers. Instead we're left to follow the journey and make our own determinations, ultimately guideless on our adventures and responsible for our reactions to the blows of misfortune that life inevitably deals us.