Reviewed by Yasser El-Sayed
James Murray’s short story collection, The Long Rifle Season, is a beautiful rough diamond, as hard-tumble and razor-edged as it is luminous; its characters navigate harsh physical and psychological landscapes. In the hands of a less capable author, these stories might seem sensationalistic or gimmicky. In Murray’s, however, they are grit-lit on-fire. Think Harry Crews’s prose on steroids. These stories are like the characters they feature: no excuses, no apologies.
The book opens with the title story, “The Long Rifle Season,” and the opening line, “There is nary a crossroads or clearing in Cherokee County that hasn’t been watered by blood at one time or another.” This sets the tone for the collection, with all its blood and blood-letting. Rage seems almost burnished into the land and into the souls of the men and women who inhabit it, whether Indians or outlaws or dirt farmers squabbling over a hog. In this masterfully concise, six-page story, Murray succeeds in merging past and present, transitioning skillfully in and out of each moment, drawing connections that at times are overstated yet necessary to set the mood and to prepare the reader for what lies ahead.
The story “Amanda’s Tale” draws us into the life of a part-Cherokee woman – the alcohol, the poverty, the marriages that collapse one after the other, the belief that you have to be “real poor to be real indian.” And everywhere the fragmented landscape, strewn with what has been discarded from the past. So powerful is that history, so pervasive is its dark and destructive residue, that none of Murray’s characters, it seems, can completely escape. Even those talented characters who enjoy brief, shining successes fall back into loss.
“Joe Bob’s Tale,” for example, features a bull rider ranked third in the world who careens into an abyss of pain and drugs and paraplegia. The artist in “Smoke,” raised “real traditional backwoods Creek indian,” could paint so well that he earned good money and even a modicum of fame; he nevertheless laughs through a solitary game of Russian Roulette while parked outside a liquor store, his skull exploding across his luxury Cadillac.
While the opening story “The Long Rifle Season” defines the landscape and sets the tone for the collection, “State Trooper” is the pivot and the ballast. Here in the grey emptiness of eastern Oklahoma, the long days seen through the eyes of a transplanted state trooper, is the percolating history of violence, loneliness and loss in its most poignant manifestation.
“The Long Rifle Season” holds no promise of redemption, hints at no other future than survival, a gritty survival, but survival nonetheless. And we come to learn, by the end of the collection, that survival is an art form these protagonists define and develop on their own terms; there is no blueprint in this world. Murray is a champion at depicting human community at its most raw and hardscrabble.
Entering into these stories is, like observing an Edward Hopper painting, both fascinating and painful. This is Murray’s first, but hopefully not last, collection of stories, an authentic, haunting read that you won’t forget.
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