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‘The Trash Detail’ a treasure

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Too often, short fiction gets short shrift.

Allowing a piece to be just long enough isn’t easy. It’s a real skill, one that not every writer possesses. To create a good short story, the creator has to be willing to embrace their creation on its own terms. Shaving away the superfluous until all that is left is the tale that is to be told. The truly gifted are those who can find that tale again and again.

You’ll find plenty of that just-right fiction in “The Trash Detail” (New Rivers Press, $18), a collection of stories from local author Bruce Pratt. It’s an assemblage of 17 stories, each devoted to spending exactly as much time as necessary to complete their journey – no more, no less. These pieces are explorations of the sublime and the ridiculous, populated by men and women who seek to understand the world in which they live and the space within it that they themselves occupy. Every story is dry and sharp.

“The Trash Detail” opens with the titular story; a woman whose efforts to catch a glimpse of her jailed man while he’s on a work detail lead her looking inward and considering some hard truths. It closes with “Saturday Night Lights,” where a man and woman join the hordes surrounding the execution of a killer – a killer with whom they are inextricably connected.

In between is a collection of fascinating work. These stories confront the mundane, absolutely – for example, “A Division of Labor” is a story that essentially boils down to a man’s thoughts as he stands in line. But there’s some weirdness to be found as well – I’m not going to give anything away, but “A Democratic Marriage” is both the shortest piece in the book and the strangest.

There are a couple of kicks in the teeth in here as well. “The Colonel’s Mistress” sees the military man of the title’s efforts at managing his affairs take a decidedly dark turn. “The Mailing List” features one of the book’s strangest protagonists and his efforts to find affection via analysis. Frankly, there’s no shortage of challenges in this collection.

But really, at their respective cores, these stories are about the human condition. I know, I know – how trite can you get? But I mean it. The people that populate the assorted worlds that Pratt has created, they celebrate and suffer in the same ways that we do. They deal with love and death and sometimes both. These stories capture snapshots of lives and give glimpses into what it means to fall in love or be in love or fall out of love. They confront the notion of what death can do to those who are left behind.

Again, it all SOUNDS simple, but it isn’t. Breathing life into these people and places with this kind of empathetic elegance is HARD – it just doesn’t feel that way when you read the stories that make up the collection.

“The Trash Detail” is a block filled with heirloom knives, each story honed by time and craft into something whose sharpness evokes gravitas. Pratt mines heartbreak and hubris in equal measure, with his wry sensibility allowing us to view it all through a lens of humor. Even the sad stories are funny in their way – bleak and devastating, yes, but also funny. And all of it driven by honesty and genuine feeling.

Short fiction too rarely is given its due. This book warrants whatever praise it might receive. The stories it contains are smart and succinct, thoughtful, well-crafted and stylistically engaging.

In short, “The Trash Detail” is a treasure.

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