- Hard Corners
The characters that inhabit John Oliver Hodges’s dazzling short story collection are both bent and beautiful. In his depictions of starving yet eager artists, lonely prostitutes, and lost souls longing for love, Hodges creates stories that are charismatic and always unflinching.
Carved into thick quarters, the collection opens with “Canes,” a story of a young male prostitute who falls for his female counterpart. His hope soon swirls with violence, swirls with sex, swirls with love. It’s a great introduction to Hodges’s bold, disarming style and also a great way to set the collection’s tone. Nothing is off limits, and boundaries will certainly be pushed, a truth which, if it wasn’t apparent from the opener, is undeniable in “We Must Feed the Children,” a grisly tale of two youngsters wrapped up, quite literally, in murder as they screech through Halloween.
Hodges’s writing has a sticky grit to it. In “Trained to Live,” an adjunct English professor who crushes on one of his students, and who has a casual fling with a convenience store clerk, muses on his motion through Queens:
I take a walk. See crap all over the sidewalk: paper scraps, crack sacks, a plum pit, a lime sliver. The two concrete steps of the Pizza Professor have been painted bright red, the paint still wet, smelling toxic and radiating.
I simply know I’ve got AIDS.
Pigeon shit, sewage.
Such dirty honesty stirs the reader and can be found throughout this book.
Each story is introduced with an original black and white photograph taken by the author. Paired with the stark imagery found in each story, the photographs add another layer to heighten the reader’s/observer’s intake experience. It’s often a perfect coupling of text and image.
Opening the second quarter of the collection is “Health Nut,” the action of which centers around a small food store largely patronized by the mentally ill. Beneath the spark and shake of the story’s unorthodoxy blooms a warming tale of a father and son reunion, and it’s here that Hodges demonstrates his ability to inject humor into emotionally charged knots. It’s a delicate balance, and Hodges, time and again, shows his keen insight into human bonds whether they’re damaged or in the process of being refurbished.
Throughout, Hodges likes to keep the stakes high, and he knows how to make things dangerous on both physical and emotional levels for his characters. In “Arbus” he comes at the reader from a female perspective, showing us a mutually adulterous couple at an art museum. Their public flirtations build to dangerous levels as the man’s physicality becomes less an act of intimacy and more a lop-sided expression of power and domination over the woman who, as it turns out, is engaged in another dangerous, desperate game:
Dinners, hotel rooms, taxis. I don’t know what Bull does to make such money, he won’t tell me, but I like not knowing. In not knowing there is mystery. The mystery compels me. In the mystery of not knowing Bull completely there is hope.
In the third quarter of the collection the reader is presented with a welcome burst of very short stories. Despite their brevity, they don’t lose any of Hodges’s trademark intensity. “Jinxed” is a rough story of drugs, violence, and rape, and “How I Supported My Habit of Collecting Scabs,” while jarring and clearly going for the gross out, pushes Hodges’s originality. His stories are nothing if not unpredictable, and with the cutting “Refuse,” an account of a character wanting to please someone so badly he forgets himself and his own safety, the reader is again gripped by Hodges’s darkly beautiful insights into the human condition.
In the final quarter, “Hurry” shows the reader an artist who begins to reduce his partner—“Her back and hips together form the shape of a guitar. She is a woman that is a guitar, her body warped by rain, her curved spine a...