Chris Orlet is the author of A Taste of Shotgun, the latest release from All Due Respect Books. This rural noir is in the tradition of Jim Thompson. The story is told through the perspective of Denis, who at first glance appears to be a down-on-his-luck dive bartender and half-assed family man. But everything is not as it seems…
ADR: A Taste of Shotgun is a fascinating slice of small town noir. Who are your favorite authors in this sub-genre and how did they influence this book?
CO: Until about 1999, I’d been mostly reading and writing “postmodern” or “experimental” fiction. I had a large collection of books from The Dalkey Archive Press. Tadeusz Konwicki, Andrzej Stasiuk, Danilo Kis, William Gass. I thought that’s what you did when you had literary pretensions. You read works from the Russian Formalist movement of the 1920s. I got so freaking bored with that stuff I quit reading and writing fiction for about a decade. What got me interested in writing fiction again wasn’t fiction, it was going back and watching a number of classic film noirs. In particular Detour and Double Indemnity and The Night of the Hunter.
I wondered if there were modern parallels to these films and, lo and behold, I came across the Coens’ Fargo and Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn’t There. I immediately traded in all my William Gass and David Foster Wallace novels for tattered James M. Cain and Jim Thompson paperbacks.
Once I dumped my literary pretensions, I was able to dedicate myself full time to discovering the old pulp writers (Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, Charles Williams), and revisiting some of the great Southern grit lit writers like Larry Brown and Harry Crews and Charles Portis and Flannery O’Connor.
Ultimately I discovered neo-noir writers like my fellow Missourians Daniel Woodrell, Scott Phillips, Jed Ayres, Matthew McBride and Joe Schwartz. I liked how they were updating noir. If you think about it, the 1940s and 50s were nowhere as grim as life is today (for white Americans, anyway), whether it’s the fascist in the White House, people’s inability to make ends meet with one or two or sometimes three jobs, folks going bankrupt because they had the misfortune of using the emergency room, having to choose between paying the rent or buying medication, and then there’s the war on unions, school shootings, terrorist attacks, the heroin and meth epidemics. Unless you’re in the one percent, it’s pretty goddamn bleak out there.
So that was kind of the jumping off point for A Taste of Shotgun.
The book has this wonderful, grubby atmosphere. What made you choose this particular part of the country that’s less foreclosed farms and barren fields, more chain restaurants and dive bars?
This is where I’m from, so it’s what I know. The southern Illinois town I grew up in is pretty much gone, and the one that took it’s place is little more than a hollowed out core. It’s like this all over the rust belt. All over the Midwest. Maybe elsewhere too. Shuttered factories. The old downtown business districts like ghost towns, victims of suburban malls and big box stores (which are dead now, too, thanks to Amazon). Americans didn’t understand that once the core of your town dies, the whole town will follow. They bought into the idea of sprawl. And sprawl is the death of a community.
When I was kid we had everything you needed within a block or two of home. A family could get by with one car easily. There was a grocery store, a dry cleaners, a high school, a barber, a bakery, a shoe repair, a restaurant, a toy store, a car dealer, a music store, a car repair shop, a doctor’s office, two bars, a church, the Stag brewery. All of that is gone, gone forever, and it’s never coming back. Some shrug and say that’s progress. That isn’t progress. That’s decay.
Growing up, my hometown was still a German industrial and coal mining town surrounded by rich farmland. During the Reagan years, most of the big industry was shuttered or was shipped overseas and the coal mines closed down. The surrounding farmland became a refuge for white flight and is now soulless suburbs. Our biggest employer is an air force base, and when that closes we’ll be in even bigger trouble. A few years ago, a guy from my hometown drove to Virginia and shot a bunch of Congressmen who were playing softball. The Washington Post sent a reporter here and he looked around and talked to some of the people. They were all Trump supporters, working class whites who are scared shitless and feel like they’re getting left behind. They aren’t the only ones being left behind, I can tell you that.
How would you describe how Denis, the narrator, changes across the course of this book? Or is it less of a change, more of a revelation of who he really is?
Typically I think the change you see in noir fiction is a loss of innocence. Take The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity. In the end the narrators are sadder but wiser. Or dead. But there are no big changes. (Unless you count being dead a big change.) The children in The Night of the Hunter lose their innocence big time. On the other hand, I just watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and the main character Mildred Hayes doesn’t change a bit. That’s Denis’ circumstance too. That may be because both Mildred and Denis are damaged individuals. Denis doesn’t change because he can’t. He’s broken. He is who he is and at this point in the game, nothing is going to change that.
But yeah, you do get a better of idea of who Denis is by the end. A lot of people don’t like unreliable narrators, and I agree it can be a bit of a crutch. So I tried to make Denis not so much someone who lies to the reader, as someone who just keeps certain things to himself, things he wouldn’t be comfortable relating, things that would make him look like a psycho. Not sure if that makes him an unreliable narrator or not.
All of the family relationships in this story ring true, especially among the three brothers. How did you approach crafting these characters and their interactions?
It’s unusual because in these days Americans have become so atomized, so scattered, that family doesn’t mean much anymore. You got 75-year-old couples spending their golden years at airports traveling to visit their children and grandchildren in Colorado one week and Florida the next. But the Carrolls are unique in that they all live in the same town, like families used to. Even if they aren’t crazy about each other, they still feel that obligation, that responsibility to family. These are people just trying to survive, and who do you rely on when you’re trying to survive? Family, if you have any. Without family, Denis would really be screwed.
The great 20th century playwrights (Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Edward Albee) knew that the family unit was the richest vein for drama. There is no conflict like family conflict. Perhaps because you can always up and leave a wife or a friend or a job. But as the old saying goes, you can’t divorce your family.
As far as crafting characters, I just try to make them stand out as individuals as best I can, try to give each one a strong personality that will make him or her come into conflict with others. That’s the fun part about writing.
Where did you come up with the title, A Taste of Shotgun?
The title comes from a chapter head in Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, which came out at a time when Dylan was really into the mythology of the America west and drugs, I think.
Chris Orlet is the author of A Taste of Shotgun (All Due Respect) and In The Pines (New Pulp Press).