Review by Jim Feast
The Uninnocent: Stories
(New York: Pegasus Books, 2011)
It’s not surprising that some of the pieces in Bradford Morrow’s new short story collection, The Uninnocent, have previously appeared in anthologies of Noir stories, because they often center on crime, with the protagonist being such things as a murderer, thief or peeping Tom. And yet the crimes committed appear almost incidental in stories that focus on the unraveling of characters who, for multiple reasons, have seen their lives go off the rail, and who resort to crime as a sort of balancing act. In their eyes, violent acting out will serve to re-equilibriate a world in which too much violence (usually at the hands of fate) has been done them.
Morrow’s self-appointed task is to make this fatal transaction appear plausible, which involves him in creating eccentric and, if not loveable, sympathetic characters, putting them in believable, up-against-it situations, and, via a flexible, exquisite prose, which seems to reshape itself to fit the measure of each hero, telling the story as inimitably as possible.
Morrow’s “[Mis]laid” is an excellent illustration of the riches on offer through his use of this plan. It opens with a house ringed by police, one in which the heavily armed owner has taken a woman hostage, saying he will kill her if anyone approaches. The captor is not some survivalist wing-nut, but a man who has been “dependable (had been with the same accounting firm for fifteen years, was the star shortstop of their interleague softball team, blessed with an infallible throwing arm and perfect aim), he now became not just unreliable, but totally unpredictable. Never in his life having missed a day of work, he called in sick (head cold, he claimed) … then drew the curtains of his modest home (two-bedroom Cape, dove-gray siding) and began what would become by week’s end to be known as (aliased thus by local law enforcement) the siege.”
We frequently hear, without much light being shed on them, about such average guys who suddenly flip out. The virtue of Morrow’s story is that the more one learns about the unnamed protagonist’s hidden life, necessarily hidden since it revolves around a complicated love affair with a married neighbor, the more his explosion seems justified. Further, as my citing of the text has suggested, the narrative sentences are all entwined with parenthetical phrases – a construction seen in no other story – that hint at the way the hero’s life has been filled with less visible, enclosed segments.
Going further in looking into this piece, it might be said that while holding a woman hostage is not an uncommon act of lunacy, this particular case, looked at carefully, and in a way not dissimilar from the other crimes that appear in the book, is sui generis. By that I mean, one of Morrow’s contributions to the study of criminality, if I can put it that way, is his depiction of how customized an illegal action is.
Take the crime that is central to “The Road to Naděja.” The hero wants to find a way to get closer to loved ones, and he finds the best way to do this is … rob them blind! Note how this works in the case of Lydia, the woman he has been dating and whose prized heirloom ring he filches. “I take things,” he tells us. “And the unhappiness Lydia felt for weeks after the disappearance of her ring made for some of the most exquisite joy I have ever known. She wept, she stormed, she despaired. She needed me, and I consoled her.” Here, as in all the tales, a person embarks on a crime spree for very individualistic, carefully crafted motives.
No escaping the fact, then, that Morrow has gone his own way in fashioning a distinctive crime fiction, using it to give psychologically acute portraits of people on the fringes who try to move away from the edge through transgressive acts that range from petty pilfering to triple murder. And, to reiterate, the complexity of his characters is not only revealed via the searchlight the author directs into the deepest recesses of their psyches but in his devising for each villain the prose equivalent of his or her tortured soul.