The Cards We Keep by James H Duncan
publisher: Hobo Camp Press, June 2013
available for purchase at Amazon.com
Review by April Michelle Bratten
I have been an avid reader of James H. Duncan’s work for several years, but up until the beginning of this year, I had only read his poetry. Duncan submitted a piece of short fiction to Up the Staircase Quarterly in early spring titled “The Black Eye,” which was immediately accepted and published in issue 20. You can read it HERE. This story is included in Duncan’s collection of ten short stories, The Cards We Keep, released in June of this year.
Always a fan of Duncan’s spirited poetry, I was eager to read his work in fiction. I was definitely not let down, and in fact, the stories in The Cards We Keep are my favorite works released from Duncan yet. Although a talented writer in multiple genres, short fiction appears to be Duncan’s forte.
The stories in The Cards We Keep all ruminate with dark undertones, yet there is also a charming and uniquely hopeful aspect to them as well. Many of the stories have a Noir-esque feel to them, with hitmen, murder, and gore, but these pieces are written in a fresh and inspiring way, with the reader connecting with and understanding the mind of the troubled characters. My favorite of these characters was the bounty hunter in “Due to an Earlier Incident,” which is set in near futuristic times. The bounty hunter chases his mark through the subway station of Manhattan, only to encounter a few problems along the way. This story definitely stood out as an exciting gem in the collection for me.
The Cards We Keep is a thoughtfully balanced collection however, and not every story is action packed. Some are quieter, emotional, more heartfelt, and powerful. My favorite of these is the title story, “The Cards We Keep,” about a hobo named Wilbur who yearns to swim in the Pacific Ocean:
Walking in sight of the Pacific put a lump in Wilbur’s throat as a tall glass of beer might to a drunkard, or a bottle of soda pop to a thirsty kid daydreaming out the schoolhouse window. He wanted to feel the waves lapping at his bare legs and swirl between his toes. He wanted to scrub his bearded face in the salty water and watch the little minnows dart away as he waded farther and farther out. But wading was out of the question now, not with a warning of trouble.
Duncan cleverly disrupts the hobo’s desires with interesting obstacles and people he runs into on his journey. The reader continues to thirst right along with Wilbur.
Another of my favorites from this collection was “Weeds,” a story which not only touched upon the genre of horror, but actually terrified me. I must have been quite a sight to see, hunched over The Cards We Keep, shooting backward glances over my shoulder every few minutes while reading “Weeds.” Well done, Mr. Duncan. Well done. I would love to read more of his scary fiction.
Duncan’s characters are genuinely interesting and relatable in all of these ten stories, no matter what strange or dangerous predicaments they might have gotten themselves into. Duncan creates scenes that never grow predictable, alas, they are quite the opposite. He has a knack for creating suspense and anticipation for what will happen next. His endings are often creatively abrupt, always leaving the reader wanting more in the best possible way. This collection is a must buy for short fiction lovers. Buy it at Amazon.com.
James H Duncan is a writer, poet, and is the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review: Poetry and Prose From the Road. He is also the editor of Writer’s Digest Books and blogs at their website. Nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Net, his poetry and short stories have appeared in dozens of magazines around the world. The Cards We Keep is his first collection of short fiction, and he is currently working on his fourth novel. He resides in New York City.