“Dirty Realism is the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict”
“And then you let Kentucky go down on you right there on his rug while the song plays over and over again and he stays down there forever like you are impossibly delicious. He kisses you afterwards and his mouth tastes like salty, spiced exotic earth.”
Earth. Dirt. Consider dirt. The substance is not classically appealing. The texture is not exactly pleasant. However strangely enough, in the short story sphere there was once a bit of a vogue for dirt, especially in the 1980s, this was specifically the American kind of dirt (think Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Jayne Ann Phillips). Many writers made their name from trading dirt. Indeed, many Granta issues have dealt only and exclusively in dirt.
Dirt, or to give it its proper name dirty realism, is the pigeonhole where the reader will most succinctly place the work of Leesa Cross-Smith. Her new collection of short stories is called Every Kiss A War. The title is evocative, as if she has fought a battle for every scrap of love she has found. Her writing is very much the quintessential American dirt of Carver and his Bukowski-led contemporaries. It is Mid-Western (well, its loci is somewhere between east and west coasts) dirt. The stories of Every Kiss A War feature earthy tones, causticity, language that could be considered vulgar, themes that stray way below the waist line, and sex that is not always wholesome, happy Hollywood sex. This collection is gritty and real, as are the characters, descriptions and dialogue.
Pleasingly, Leesa Cross-Smith has a wonderful way of spinning a sentence. The opening line of the opening story goes, “We got lost every time we crossed the Ohio River.” Note the use of place, the geography, the sense of immediacy – there is even a discernible style implicit in her opening gambit. Other whirls of her wand are more wonderful still: “His mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read”, for example is a fantastic line in anyone’s book, whether that be gruff Bukowski-style realism or prim Scott Fitzgerald-style escapism.
Overall the quality of Every Kiss A War remains consistently high; there is a large dose of sexual tension, clumsy chemistry and a vague, sometimes thrilling, sense of violence that simmers somewhere underneath the underbelly’s underbelly. These words, and the stories they expand to form, have been lived in. They are genuine events.
However some of the writing does feel slightly formulaic, there are twenty-eight (yes twenty-eight!) separate pieces, and when the word count runs over the mid-distance I wonder if Leesa Cross-Smith had perhaps reigned in a few themes and held back a sketch or five, then she would have ended up with stronger end product. Too many of the stories read like too many of the other stories and her writing style is so strong that she struggles to loosen, or tighten, her dirty pen strokes. The issues repeat. Ten clear, well-developed scraps of dirt would have been better than twenty-eight messy ones.
Nevertheless this is a still-brilliant collection, and if this is what she reads like in shorts, I look forward reading Leesa Cross-Smith in her full evening party dress of a debut novel. Congratulations on an accomplished collection. One of her strongest skills, coincidentally, is her knack of finding neat and crisp endings. Well, sugar, I think I’ll put a full stop right here.
Charlie Baylis lives and works in Nottingham. He is the flash fiction editor of Litro NY. He reviews poetry and fiction for Stride and Neon. His own creative writing has most recently appeared in Stride, Agave and Litro, and his poetry has been shortlisted for the Bridport (UK) and Pushcart prizes (US). He spends his spare time completely adrift of reality.