By Dayne Sherman
Tim Parrish. Red Stick Men: Stories. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. ISBN 1-57806-263-2. $22.00.
Detailing the lives of working class men in the Baton Rouge of his youth, Tim Parrish, a professor of creative writing at Southern Connecticut State University, writes a remarkable debut collection of short stories aptly titled Red Stick Men. A twenty-seven year resident of Baton Rouge, Parrish explores the mean streets in white suburban neighborhoods where men made their livings in a hardscrabble struggle against the elements and each other. Though women are sprinkled throughout the narrative, it is always clear that the focus is on men, often mere boys trying to lead grownup lives.
Parrish, an LSU alumnus, published these stories previously in fine literary magazines such as Louisiana Literature, The Crab Orchard Review, The Texas Review, Southern Exposure, and elsewhere. The collection reads like a novel at the beginning, with the first three stories unveiling the world according to Jeb, a boy ranging in age from about ten to thirteen years old.
In “It Pours,” the first story, a Louisiana rainstorm has overtaken the subdivision where Jeb and his family reside. Conflict oozes out of the plot like oil from a leaky transmission. As the water level rises, the reader is dropped into the middle of a community filled with family disharmony. It’s the late 1960s, Vietnam, teenage drug use, and generational disconnect are at a social boiling point.
In “Complicity,” Jeb is pitted against his psychotic neighbors, Jim Park a police officer and his son Ricky. The story rises and falls with tension, mother against son, Jeb against his brother Bob (back from Vietnam), and family against family. Bob is a complex character who will show up in several later stories of his own. He is on the police force and has allegiances with the next-door neighbor, Jim Park—a spouse-beating thug. “Bonnie Ledet” is a hard-hitting tale of teenage romance, one in which Jeb gets mixed-up in the dangers of first love with the new girl in the neighborhood, a Cajun from Dulac.
Bob, a man set adrift by his own bad choices and impulses, is the main character in “Exterminator,” and “Hardware Man.” His hair-trigger personality has him set against all comers.
In “Free Fall,” Parrish presents a story bordering on magical realism. Jimmy Strawhorn has jumped from a sixth floor hotel window only to be caught in a canopy below unharmed. It’s as if his life has entered a new bizarre era, one where he is floating around dreamily. Jimmy stumbles upon Sandra, a rootless woman working at the state capitol observatory gift shop; she has been reading about Jimmy in the newspaper. Their lives intertwine, Sandra thinking the encounter depends on fate’s magic. Doom lingers in the air when the reader understands these two people meeting is like introducing a spark to dynamite. Eventually the two of them go to the hotel room where Jimmy jumped. She takes her own leap to the canopy below.
Parrish stretches his character’s limits in “Roustabout,” an unfamiliar story of repressed gay feelings on a Louisiana oilrig. And “The Smell of a Car” makes Miller Terrell an unsuspecting witness to a road-rage murder.
The final story, “After the River,” is a fantastic event perfect for compelling fiction. The Mississippi River is changing its course, emptying Baton Rouge and New Orleans of their preeminent status in the Bayou State. All manner of weirdness occurs as this monologue is played out. The narrator and his wife, Cheryl, smoke dope and party through the river shift, finally watching the catastrophe from the safe vantage point of the state capitol. Anyone who has wondered what could happen if the river changed course must read this story.
Red Stick Men is a book about people with deep flaws, hard lives, and harsh realities, stories about those seeking justice, perhaps little justice in the end. Parrish is a fresh voice in Louisiana-based fiction, one we will hear more of in the future.
Dayne Sherman is the author of the novels Zion and Welcome to the Fallen Paradise. Both are $2.99 ebooks. Signed first editions available from the author. And he does not speak for any of his employers. Please sign up for my newsletter and get the FREE Dayne Sherman Starter Pack Ebook. Thanks for reading and sharing.