I began reading James Claffey's Blood a Cold Blue sitting in front of a large field of prairie dogs, their little heads popping in and out of their tunnels' holes to stare at me. The area was a popular section of the Badlands, North Dakota, tucked inside the reaches of several large hills, where one lone buffalo stood grazing, the King of the Prairie Dogs. My surroundings were already quite surreal. Earlier, a coyote had trotted through the area, just to test the prairie dogs' reflexes, and bounded up toward where I was perched, stunning me motionless. When adding the words of James Claffey into this strange mix of nature and awe, I was left quite dizzy, my mind jumbled into some sweet disarray, a welcomed moment.
Claffey's work can bring you to transformation. The world becomes a smaller place; tighter, disorienting, disturbing. Truly enjoyable. The stories within this collection, 83 in total, are all quick reads, many only taking up the space of a good-sized paragraph. Claffey's talent lives in his ability to transform his reader with those few well placed words. There is plenty to love and admire here. These are well-crafted short stories and pieces of flash fiction, realized characters and realistic backdrops, some that are touched with a splash of surrealistic tone and imagery, all written with care and discernment. The story "Kidney Trouble" was a personal favorite of mine, combining all of these elements with one excellent shot:
I've woken twice during the night by the metal knocking come from my kidney. The noise reminds me of the way the corrugated iron roof of the garden shed flaps on a windy day. I mimic the sound: ehhhh, ehhhh, ehhhh.
As the clicking of the nurse's shoes draws nearer I hush up and press the pillow to my side so she won't hear my kidney's metallic groans. Maybe it's the pressure of the pillow, but I piss my pants and my pee spreads daffodil yellow on the bed and smells awful. I can feel the shape of my kidney through the skin and how it vibrates from the broken pieces.
Other stories within the collection do not hold so much surrealism as they do gritty realism, or dirty realism, the kind of stuff that feels so real that it becomes surreal. There I go, squirming a little in my chair, unable to peel myself away from the horrors of every day ugliness: grief, anxiety, fear, and the rot of mere existence that most of us try to keep hidden. Claffey reveals it. The stories of this kind are the most addictive of the collection. You find the story ending right where it should; when you want the most from it. One such story, "Bingo Night," first appeared in issue #12 of Up the Staircase Quarterly a few years ago. The characters within it are probably lost, bored, drifting, but Claffey does not portray them as such. Their actions and movements are undeniably human; grotesque yet gorgeous. It gives me the amusing fear that I might throw up, but I will not, and it all happens in the most wonderful way.
Another story along this same vein in Blood a Cold Blue is "Childbirth," a story set in my home state of Louisiana. I am a big fan of a little southern flavor in my stories, so I was quite happy to stumble upon this gem:
Careful footfall after careful footfall, he searched for the curved trail of water moccasin in motion. A decent-sized one glided by, tongue y-ing the air, and with a painter's patience he grabbed the snake by the neck, writhing from the water. Hooking one leg around a tree limb, he planted the head against a green Kenmore fridge and brought the stick down on the skull. A deflated sound from the snake and it shrank into the belt it would become. He swung about and waded for shore. At home, his wife sweated in the back bedroom, hours from birthing twins, as the whistle of the evening freight from Houston drew close.
This moment, captured so starkly and effortlessly by Claffey, speaks volumes for the unlovely, the parts we all possess.
Although many of these stories are dark, the trails they leave behind are energetic, purposeful, and dare I say, clean. I have enjoyed James Claffey's work for some time now, and was truly excited to read this collection, his first. I took my time with Blood a Cold Blue, reading it over the course of a few months, picking up right where I had left off, delving straight back into the strange world Claffey has created. This book was perfect for that type of slow reading, taken in small gulps, lingering. Blood a Cold Blue is gratifying. It fills up something inside of you that you did not know yearned to be filled. Highly recommended.
James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and now lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and occasionally, his son, Simon. James’ writing has appeared in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies, including Blue Fifth Review, Cobalt Review, Elimae, Extract(s), Metazen, Necessary Fiction, New Orleans Review, Prime Number Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Santa Fe Literary Review, Toronto Quarterly, and Word Riot. His website is at www.jamesclaffey.com