by Tony Burnett
Published November 2014 by Kallisto Gaia Press.
Reviewed by Michael Sirois.
One of the first clues that this was going to be an unusual book was the cover art. A photographic bust of a bearded man, possibly Civil War era, in near profile, occupies the central oval of a rectangular frame, bordered by barbed wire. The frame is reminiscent of a whisky label, the label announcing that there are thirteen 100-proof stories within. Southern Gentlemen is comprised of thirteen yarns about love, lust, liquor, losers and leaders. A fair percentage of the characters are rogues and rascals trying to find their way under trying circumstances. Some of them succeed in strange and admirable ways, while others fail miserably. Such is life, but these lives grab you and burrow into your memory.
Central to most of these sometimes very graphic stories are the women in (or out of) the gentlemen’s lives. Relationships, physical or otherwise, are a vital part of most of the tales.
The vast majority of the stories are grounded in reality, but a few are shifted out of the realm of normalcy. In one, a widow and a widower meet in seemingly ordinary circumstances, but a unique timely twist reveals that their movements were driven by something other than chance. Another story is a courtroom drama where everyone is probably sane except for the defendant. Or are they?
Other stories are accounts of struggles to survive. A man tries to paint his way out of homelessness, another has to choose between the independence he has become used to and the woman he clearly loves. Tough choices, but all these stories have the stamp of truth to them.
Especially nice is The American Trilogy, three short tales about a boy named Tommy, coming of age amid incidents involving snake bites, father and son dynamics, farming entrepreneurship, young love, and taking dangerous chances (the last one spurred by the attentions of a young female, of course).
And the language? Real. Very real. Mr. Burnett has obviously spent a great deal of time listening intently, picking up the rhythms and accents of a wide variety of individuals. This isn’t to say the narrative is plain. It’s plain where it needs to be, but also contains flashes of a poetic cadence and structure at times. There are some real gems here. Language that remained with me for days afterward, like the description of someone who has “…shimmied free of her mortal coil,” possibly due to “…the lack of blood in her alcohol stream.” Phrases that leave the reader with a clear image of the free spirit this woman had been in life.
These are adult stories, and some of them are not for the squeamish, but all of them are worthwhile reflections of the choices and the promises that comprise human existence. It is definitely worth reading.
Michael Sirois has been a member of WLT since 2010. He lives with his wife, Minay, in a suburb of Houston, where he is hard at work on another thriller, The Hawthorn’s Sting. His thriller, The Jagged Man, is now available as an e-book. Check it out here. You can explore the scary place he calls his brain through his writing blog and his website.