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My Long-Playing Records
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My Long-Playing Records

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My Long-Playing Records by Richard Jespers is a collection of mostly unrelated short stories, most set in West Texas and dealing with a variety of characters.

In the first story, "A Certain Kind of Mischief", a boy whose mother abandons him befriends a troubled older kid who hatches a plot to hurt a third kid, but then turns it against his abusive mother instead.

"Ghost Riders" revolves around a forgiving pastor whose charitable work and nascent friendship with a homeless man is turned on its head when he finds that the homeless man was convicted of sexual abuse against a minor in the past.

"The Best Mud" has the sweet-natured Coop, a mentally-disabled man who loses his job thanks to a back injury and who struggles to take care of his father when the older man is put into the hospital.

"Handy to Some" has a feisty German woman whose visit to the hospital is slowly explained through a one-sided dialogue, culminating in a grotesque expression of self-loathing.

"Blight" involves a little boy who finds himself enamored of his next-door neighbor, a young husband, who takes him on a fishing trip that turns into something else.

"A Gambler's Debt" tells the story of a well-off doctor, Dr. Prine, who unwisely conducts an affair and is punished by his wife through a cold war campaign. On a visit to Vegas and an impromptu trip to a religious facility, his wife has an epiphany that changes the way they see each other.

"Tales of the Millerettes" follows a family of strong women as they struggle for fame and fortune in their respective eras, all against the backdrop of a glamorous 1920s theatre and golden Hollywood.

"Men at Sea" is narrated by a boy traveling with his uncle, a gay man who flirts his way through the crew, and the ensuing drama that unfolds thanks to his amorous adventures.

The titular piece, "My Long-Playing Records" sees protagonist Mortimer wrestling with his feelings as he strives to be a better husband to his wife, Julie, and conduct a cut-off affair with a man named Wade.

"Basketball is Not a Drug" is a more experimental piece, detailing the various drugs an older man takes as he seeks to remedy the natural maladies that afflict men as they grow older, and his own infatuation with basketball.

"Engineer" has a dutiful gay man taking care of his elderly father and nursing a grudge against both his father for old slights and favoritism, and his older brother, Uri, who fails to take on any responsibilities.

"Snarked" is a shorter story about what happens when a school divided into two groups finds themselves in a situation when making a choice - whether to live together or die together - is suddenly made tragically apparent.

"Killing Lorenzo" has distinct flavors, that of a man dreaming of old acquaintances, practicing his organ music, and facing the possibility of prostate cancer and the looming idea of what that can mean for him and his partner.

"The Age I Am Now" uses the very real murder of Theo van Gogh as a backdrop for a translator as he navigates different languages, different cultures, and his increasing frustration with what America is becoming.

Finally there is "Bathed in Pink", an extremely short piece about a woman who wrestles with advancing age and how it separates her from her grown sons and even her granddaughter.

I will admit that many of the stories, while not by any means bad, were not very compelling, either. The dialogue could be awkward, particularly in the case of the first one, but Jespers does have a gift for atmosphere. Part of the reason I was initially attracted to this short story collection is that I am Texan, and his stories reflect that arid, laidback West Texas feel without resorting to the clumsy use of distinct drawls and cowboy hats mentioned every two paragraphs. Here is a man who clearly is writing what he knows, and doing it well.

"Ghost Riders" had the most intellectual meat, the kind that made me squirm in moral discomfort; while the ending might have been a bit heavy-handed, the realism was so perfectly described that I had a soft spot for it regardless.

The true standout, however, is the magnificent "Tales of the Millerettes". I could not put my finger on what was different about this one, but it was the turning point, from where I was reading dutifully to reading avidly. I cared about these characters, I wanted to see if they would fail or succeed. Vivian, Velma, Vera, Violet... even the names evoked the old-style Hollywood glamor.

Some of the stories had a bit of an experimental, even sometimes amateurish, quality - while I liked the premise of "Handy to Some", the style didn't quite connect with me, and "Basketball is Not a Drug" was quite frankly rather grating, but the ones that work - and rest assured, these are the majority - are well worth it.
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  kittyjay | Apr 23, 2015 |
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