Joliet, Illinois has seen its share of hardship over the years, and it’s during such a time of economic crisis (and so too familial crisis) that author Patrick Michael Finn crushes his characters and tests their faith in this collection of eight darkly beautiful though often debilitating connected stories. A few tangibles in Finn’s collection include factories, barrooms, exotic dancers, knives, explosives, and semen. Pair these up with emotional components such as insecurity, anger, fear, desperation—lots and lots of desperation—and violence, then toss in a pinch of hope, and what you have is a volatile and extremely readable mixture that’s as toxic as it is incendiary. Young men come of age, young women come apart, and young men come apart. The parents do what the parents do best in working class factory cities, which is trudge along and drink themselves to numbness or violence or death or perhaps all three.
The collection begins with “Smokestack Polka,” a story about the death of a working class, worked-to-the-bone father and the immediate impact his death has on the wife and two sons who survive him. Finn’s early descriptions of his characters and the places they inhabit are straightforward and smart, and they quickly establish a heavy tone (and brand of beer) that is carried throughout:
Most nights my father came home from work with hardly enough energy to talk, but I still don’t blame him for his distance. He worked outside for ten-hour shifts in the vast open railroads, and season after season he was battered by choking humidity, and by sub-zero winds that froze the ground solid as rail steel. He was a big man, but never awkward or lumbering, and his nightly six-packs of Old Style at the kitchen table never made him soft.
The book opens with stories that are told by young men. In “Smokestack Polka,” the narrator is the younger of two brothers who suddenly finds himself struggling to protect both his mother from lecherous men and his wayward elder from himself. The title story, “From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet,” is told by a young man wrestling with his parents’ disbelief that there are rats living in the basement. The young man also struggles with an overly insecure and verbally abusive father whose major concern isn’t the rats but his ongoing, perhaps unconscious quest to transfer every drop of his own ugliness into his son.
Finn shifts to a third-person perspective in “Shitty Shelia,” a lurid tale of an aging exotic dancer who left Kentucky but never quite made it to her intended destination of Chicago. Instead, Shelia tumbles down a hard and filthy road in Joliet, crawling through soiled rooms filled with drunk and soiled old men who clutch and paw at each other and their bottles.
The oven was stuffed with crushed cans, broken bottles, cigarette butts, cardboard beer boxes, wads of streaked newspaper they’d used to wipe their asses. In other rooms the buckets. Mattresses stained with layers of dark yellow clouds. Half of the front room couch was crushed and charred from when Hamshack had passed out with a cigarette and it stank with the stale yeasty reek of the beer they’d used to extinguish it.
Unfortunately for this reviewer, “Shitty Shelia” felt too gratuitous in its depiction of a tragic character. Despite some intense descriptive passages, the reader isn’t left with much other than a heavy load of misfortunes and devastations heaped one of top of another. On the other hand, “The Retard of Lard Hill” plays more evenly. It brings us into a devastated neighborhood ripe with both adults and adolescents who are alcohol-fueled and boiling over with a commingling of desperation and hatred. Their lives are as sloppy and as poorly tended as their lawns. Boys blast their summer away with M-80s, and practical jokes cross over into criminal territory. Here, Finn begins to turn some lights on, albeit...