There are as many approaches to writing about drugs as there are stars in the sky, but most fall into one of two categories. Both take the reader on a journey to the depths of depravity, but one brings the reader back while the other leaves her there. The drug-addled heroines of Black Cloud, Del Mar writer Juliet Escoria's debut collection of 12 terrifying short fictions from publisher Civil Coping Mechanisms, belong to the latter camp.
Escoria's stories feature young women at loose ends. They do ketamine or coke or heroin or meth. They drink too much and choose partners poorly. Even though the stories are exceptionally short, in the span of a few pages, the protagonists manage to run through all their options.
"He went to work and constructed code. I waited tables and collected tips. Sometimes I'd wake up at dawn and find myself tangled in his arms, one of my yellow hairs stuck to his eyebrow. We got nosebleeds. We made lasagna. I got pregnant."
Escoria's stories seduce the reader with their normalcy, and then the bottom falls out. She's a master of thinly sketched narratives whose characters are believable but not reliable. Her characters usually can't see past their realities, but they're beginning to have doubts about their circumstances.
"I would only look at books about aliens and crop circles. I wasn't too sure about aliens before, but recently I'd risen into a new clarity."
In "Glass, Distilled," the narrator fixates on her one-armed dealer. He used to be a fisherman, and now he deals cocaine out of a rent-by-the-month motel room. Meanwhile, her boyfriend becomes obsessed with tropical fish when their relationship takes a turn for the worse.
"...I stared at the fish in the tank that illuminated the room from the foot of our bed. The fish's eyes were blank and their mouths opened and closed with nothing coming out. When I looked at them, it seemed like we were the exact same kind of being."
Escoria has a poet's knack for knowing when to tie off a paragraph for thunderous effect and displays enormous empathy for the damaged souls that populate her stories. Her fictions are like fish tanks: unnatural habitats that we can peer into but whose inhabitants are unlikely to thrive. She forces us to consider what these beings were like before they became undone and what they still hope to become.
A book-release party for Black Cloud will be held at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27, at Nunzi's Cafe (1255 University Ave. in Hillcrest).
I don't mean to sound like a cynic, but with all the furor and fascination surrounding the whereabouts of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, San Diegan Bonnie ZoBell picked a pretty good week to launch a book that deals with the aftermath of a plane crash.
The collision of a Cessna 172 with a Boeing 727-214 over San Diego that caused both aircraft to crash in North Park on Sept. 25, 1978, serves as an organizing principle for What Happened Here, ZoBell's new collection of linked stories from Press 53.
"The explosion was instantaneous—an enormous fireball whooshed into the sky, a mushroom of smoke and debris. Scraps of clothing leaped onto telephone poles, body parts fell on roofs, tray tables scattered across driveways. Airplane seats landed on front lawns, arms and legs descended onto patios, and a torso fell through the windshield of a moving vehicle."
Grim and ghoulish, ZoBell imagines what it was like during those awful days after the crash and how it affected the neighborhood throughout the years. We meet new-age healers, anxiety-riddled waitresses, surfers and skateboarders—even a chupacabra.
"Something was there, something big and muscular if her eyes weren't tricking her. A foul smell overtook the bluff, so strong even the wind couldn't dilute it—tangy, excremental, like deteriorating flesh. She tried to focus her eyes. What looked like teeth reflected back."
The suggestion here is that it doesn't matter if the beast is real if we let the fear take over. ZoBell's characters are stuck in a queer kind of indeterminacy: They've been marked by catastrophic events beyond their comprehension, and although they know the way forward, they can't help but look back.
ZoBell, who heads the creative-writing program at Mesa College, will read from What Happened Here with Gina Frangello and Rob Roberge on April 13. The reading will be at San Diego Writer's Ink in Point Loma's Liberty Station, which sits in the flight path of Lindbergh Field. And while it may at times sound as if the sky is falling, things like that don't happen here.