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Books

Night Train

Phoebe Kate Foster

A pleasantly un-self-conscious blend of subjects and settings.

Rod Siino and Rusty Barnes, editors

Night Train Publications, Inc.

November 2002, Premiere Issue, 256 pages, $9.95 (US)

Inaugural Run

"Magazine starting is always an act of passion, not one of consideration -- careless, heedless, irreverent. Work out the probabilities and you will never start one."
� Vance Bourjaily

"Why not go out on a limb? Isn't that where the fruit is?"
� Frank Scully

On an ordinary day just about a year ago, two perfectly rational men living in the Boston area had a marvelously irrational moment. In a gloomy economic time for small presses and "little" magazines, they decided -- on the spur of the moment -- to start a literary journal.

Night Train, whose debut issue came out this November, is the brainchild of two MFA Program graduates from Emerson College, Rod Siino and Rusty Barnes, who had kicked around the idea for years before Siino sent an impulsive email to his friend last February saying, "Let's do it!" Being writers themselves as well as businessmen, their creative talents, aesthetic senses, and down-to-earth commercial acumen have auspiciously combined to create a quietly impressive journal that stands a good chance to keep the narrative tradition alive and well in spite of the odds.

The last few years have been hard ones for the "indies," the independently published literary magazines -- and for the short story writers and poets who depend upon them as a major source of exposure for their work. The 2003 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, the "bible" for fiction writers, lists a whopping 82 magazines, small presses and literary contests that have temporarily suspended or gone out of business, reported an uncertain future, or can't be found anymore via the U.S. mail. Among the "deceased" are familiar names such as Story and Canada's Amethyst Review; four Southern regional journals, Habersham Review, Lonzie's Fried Chicken, and Virginia Adversaria); a journal dedicated to discovering and promoting new talent, WV; and numerous "littles" of long-standing, such as Tucumcari Review and S.L.U.G. Fest Ltd. that had given space to many writers who might otherwise have gone unnoticed by larger markets.

The good news for Night Train is that the happy mix of its creators' varied skills and their helpful connections in the literary world via Emerson College, known for its venerable old warhorse of a journal, Ploughshares, may bode well for the fledgling magazine. Siino, an author whose work has appeared in the prestigious Zoetrope, is also the consummate entrepreneur and admittedly handles the bulk of the business end of the publication.

"I'm OCD," Siino remarked in an interview with this reviewer. "I'm obsessive about details. I never let things fall through the cracks. I'm always saying, 'Have we done this yet?'" In short, he describes himself as, "a pain in the ass business guy."

On the other hand, Barnes, whose stories have appeared in such cutting edge online venues as 3:00 A.M. and In Posse Review, describes himself as a "visionary" and has assumed much of the creative responsibility as fiction editor, but also sports a very handy background in book distribution. They see themselves as being "radically opposite," but a well-rounded and strong team that covers all the bases needed to keep a literary journal on track during the initial difficulties of the start-up phase and ongoing tight economic times.

The stories in Night Train are polished, crisp, elegant, designed to appeal to the both the hard-core aficionados of the short story form and the more casual general reader who might spot the journal on a shelf at a bookstore and intrigued by its name, which comes from the jazz piece by Oscar Peterson (although it also is the name of a brand of fortified wine, as well as a reference to the leisurely passenger rail transportation of yesteryear with its cozy sleeping car compartments and porters with keys to unlock the fold-down berths at bedtime.)

In these pages, you'll find a pleasantly un-self-conscious blend of subjects and settings to be enjoyed like a scenic trip through both familiar and unfamiliar territory. The writing is well balanced, intelligent, and subtle without being inaccessible. These are stories that, above all, have tales to tell that are entertaining and evocative, capturing the small moments in life and chronicling the corkscrew twists of fate that turn ordinary circumstances into unforgettable events.

Three of the journal's most effective stories appear in the first few pages, a shrewd piece of arrangement that quickly displays the range of styles and themes to be found in Night Train.. In Mary Corinne Powers's "Grit," a woman who is the victim of domestic abuse compulsively cleans her way to accepting the end of the destructive relationship:

She knows that she sweeps these same tiles at least eight times a day. It is baffling to her, a mystery, how there can be so much dirt. How is it possible that each time she sweeps, she generates a new little pile of untidiness, a new collection of nonspecific debris?

As she stoops to urge the newest sweepings into the dustpan, she pokes a tentative finger into the pile. Sharp and stiff, but flexible, like fishing line. They are the broken tips from her broom.

Powers deftly turns housekeeping rituals into a metaphor for the gradual process of emotional healing as the woman simultaneously sifts through her memories and prepares herself for a new and better life.

The protagonist of Karen Lee Boren's wry flash fiction "Honor" is both hilarious and heartbreaking as her humiliating and infuriating family predicament is revealed:

She got a little punchy, turned philosophical, went to orgies, and made it with panhandlers -- well, hotel cooks -- anyway, one hotel cook.

This is what your sister marrying your ex-husband can do to you, she thought, as she pushed the flabby-assed sous chef through her hotel room doorway.

Her sister and her ex-husband. The three of them, they were a Greek play. A Southern tragedy. An afternoon talk show

Jesus Christ, if they didn't ask her to be matron of honor.

The unhappy heroine gets roaring drunk at her sister's wedding and is discovered by the amorous sous chef "in the coat room, her broomstick legs and powder blue slingbacks protruding as if a faux-fur house had dropped on her." The only criticism this reviewer has is that this wickedly delectable story is too short. Though it is quite complete within the framework of a scant 2 1/2 pages, I was very sorry to have it end so soon when I was having so much fun with it.

"The Goddess" is another example of tour de force flash fiction. The founders of the magazine refer to the genre as "firebox fiction," in keeping with their railroad theme, describing it as fiction of 1,000 words or less that's "bursting with creative fire." This disturbing tale of multiculturalism gone badly amok sizzles and crackles with sexual tension as an attractive female traveler finds herself mercilessly victimized by the deckhands on a foreign freighter. The woman is saved from serious harm only by a fortuitous last-minute intervention, leaving the reader to ponder the precariousness of life and the vast gaps that still exist between genders, social classes, and ethnic groups.

There are a remarkable number of stories in this volume that stick in one's mind and take up what promises to be permanent residence. The troubled parents and unhappy children in Thomas H. McNeeley's "King Elvis," Paula J. Webb's "Maracaibo," and Edward Falco's "The Professor's Son" are as real as one's next door neighbors and as unforgettable as one's own kin. And in Rose Gowen's exquisite "In the Garage," a family of foxes are the main characters of a story guaranteed to haunt one long after its very brief one page has been read.

Night Train first came to the attention of PopMatters when Books Editor and author Valerie H. MacEwan had a submission accepted for this debut issue. In the classic down-home style of her regular PopMatters column, "True Tales from the South," the story "Reunion Summer" takes readers into the heart of Dixie to chronicle dysfunctional Southern kin dutifully make the cyclical rounds of high school and family get-togethers in a haze of alcohol:

Great Uncle Pete is the first one to reach the pinnacle of inebriation. As one side of his lawn chair sinks slowly into the mud, his body oozes, unnoticed, onto the ground near the campfire. While reciting the oft-repeated tale of the battle of Midway, he crawls through the mud to Uncle Edmond's chair, uses it for support, rights himself and then picks up his chair and puts it back in the same spotHe continues this oozing process throughout the night.

To the Night Train founders' credit, there is an admirable mix of known and less-familiar writers. The contributors' notes are fascinating reading, as each author explains what inspired his or her particular story. Another feature that makes the journal appealing is the use of brief story quotes, in larger type and placed as inserts in the margins of various pieces, to tempt the cursory skimmer to sample the delights. It works quite well in gourmet food shops when little plates of expensive cheeses on toothpicks are casually left on counters for the shoppers. It is equally effective in publishing, I would imagine, for teasing the appetites of potential readers. Additionally, the magazine has an attractive website featuring sample stories from issues, as well as short fiction contests and awards competitions.

The current issue of NT is available via their website and at Barnes & Noble and other large bookstore chains. The next issue is expected to come out this spring. If Night Train's inaugural run is any indicator of what readers can look forward to in future issues, it would appear that Rod Siino and Rusty Barnes have come up with a winner that should be able to stand the test of time and the current rocky economy for the arts. In 1999, a report by the NEA stated that literature is "less visible than the other arts, since writing and reading are done in private." Lamentably, one might fear that "less visible" could easily translate into less deserving of monies simply because the creation and enjoyment of the written word are not public events.

In the words of Siino and Barnes, however, is found the spirit that makes rational men go out on a limb. "What's our American Dream? Editing a great magazine that provides writers like us an opportunity to define the direction of the short story and to keep it alive. We're not after a buck. We'd like to see a buck, maybe two bucks. But that's not the bottom line at Night Train. Our hearts are in the stories themselves, how they try to make sense of the world and how we as humans should behave in it. The narrative is what matters. It's the story of all our lives."

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