The author Mark Richard once advised an aspiring writer to “cultivate an unflinchingly peculiar world vision”. Stephen Graham Jones never studied with Mark Richard and, in this aspect at least, it’s clear he didn’t have to. Jones was born with his own unflinchingly peculiar world vision and it is as natural to him, while being so wondrous and exotic to everyone else, as Superman’s X-ray vision. The second sight that allows Jones to convey various dark aspects of the human condition in a fresh way fills his previous books, Fast Red Road: A Plainsong (2000), The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto (2003), and All the Beautiful Sinners (2003). It’s on display again in Bleed Into Me: A Book of Stories.
For a glimpse into the kinds of characters and unreal situations Jones writes about, one need look no further than the collection’s first story, “Halloween”. Here, a father who observes holidays in an almost obsessive fashion includes his children in his celebrations by training them to be “little versions of himself”. One of his training exercises with the kids involves teaching them to shoot across a pasture, under a butane tank. Not too far under, though, because then the slug would ricochet off the concrete into the belly of the tank—and the kids’ mother is inside the trailer next to it. Jones’s characters all take these kinds of extreme risks in their lives, so this particular hobby appears perfectly normal.
Jones’s characters are always a hair’s breadth away from incarceration, eviction, or any number of other troubles. These are people who pawn rifles to pay back gas money they borrowed from friends, or people who trade lovers to pay off debts owed to the garage. Bodily injury plays a significant role in their stories, too. In “Nobody Knows This”, a 10-year-old boy watches his grandfather shoot a horse with a broken leg. Four years later, that same boy is accompanying his father and grandfather on a hunting trip. The boy takes a wrong step, and hears his leg break. Lying in the snow, the boy sees his grandfather, with gun in hand, rushing towards him. “The boy, 10 years old again, and not a horse,” provides the story’s confronting climax. In “To Run Without Falling”, 14-year-old boys wrestle and fight in a playground, incurring various injuries that provide insight into their future lives, as grown men with children who will play on the same slide and swing set these boys are now abusing. In Last Success, there’s a beating with a manure shovel that results in a trip to the hospital.
These desperate characters, frequently risking emergency room visits, raise an important point about Jones’s work. In a review like this, it’s easy simply to comment about Jones preferring to explore the lives of troubled people, living on the edge, full of rage and desperation. But he does more than that. He understands that there is beauty and grace in every life, even the most troubled and seemingly outrageous. For example, in lesser hands, the story, “Carbon”, would just be another piece about drug addicts on a binge. Jones manages to write a story that isn’t so much about drugs and despair, as it is the grace of love. The pain in this story comes from loving too much. The narrator sacrifices himself, cares for his lover, and is pained by her dissipation. His pain isn’t a self-serving, self-centered agony. Instead, it’s similar to any other kind of heartbreak or desperation at the potential loss of a loved one. The narrator may be an addict, but his misery is treated fairly and realistically.
Much of Jones’s success in these stories has to do with his evocative phrasing. Sprinkled throughout these stories are gripping sentences that express simple things in deceptively un-simple ways. In “Venison”, a pregnant woman is described as “nine months past words already”. In “Episode 43: Incest”, instead of just saying a female character lacks a male presence, or at least his attention, in her household, Jones writes: “This one was a waitress named Charla, who’s unmarried enough that there’s mesquite growing up through the ruts of her driveway.” In “Bleed Into Me”, a young man’s separation from his family is described as: “towards the end—when he was more a rumor than a brother.” And again in “The Fear of Jumping”, children are taught an interesting lesson by on father, who tells them: “You don’t learn not to kill things by not killing things.”
Jones reveals so much in Bleed Into Me that so many of us either can’t see, don’t notice, or won’t acknowledge about those we consider socially beneath us. Jones sees this world, its parallels between beauty and despair, grace and turmoil, and describes it with originality and stylistic flair. Jones’s vision is unflinchingly peculiar. It’s also a vision like no other.