In a no-frills manner, Rusty Barnes bestows upon us Mostly Redneck (Sunny Outside Press, 2011). Editor of Night Train Magazine, a historied journal respected as a propulsion board for flash fiction writers, Barnes’s editorial taste is a leap from the flash pieces in his recent collection. (Night Train runs stories with a more ethereal feel, but this Mostly Redneck displays a hard-lined realism.) However, both are a testament to his diverse understanding of what makes for interesting reading. This is a collection for fans of Updike’s more grounded works.
The collection speaks to the hipper end of the mature reader spectrum, making references to The Tropicana, Saddam Hussein (who is painted rather imaginatively), and exploring the pains of what it is to be a father with growing daughters. However, with Rusty Barnes, there is always a point, a stamp, a morality check, a humanity check. This is a writer who pays mind to the human condition amidst his story telling. These are not just finely crafted stories, but rather a collection that beckons the reader to consider their own life as well as the lives of others.
The last third of the collection is distinctly stronger than the first two thirds, so much so that I found myself reading the last pages again, suggesting them to friends who are fanatical about writing which pays specific mind to the economic use of language. What Barnes can do in three pages, most writers cannot in twenty.
Barnes’s surprising ability to write through gender is also moving. While many of the stories are from a distinctly tough guy modus, (guns, trucks, fighting, all mentioned repeatedly) many of the more profound moments are told from a female protagonist’s point of view. In “Harry, Giselle, Joyce” we are given a veritable ode to fellow writers, told in a vulnerable female voice amidst fist-fights in parks. In “Hundred Dollar Hit” we are given flavors of Dorothy Parker. In these choices, which seem like entirely natural writing for Barnes, we view a beautiful ability to think between intense normality and a rather poetic, ethereal, if not saucy gift. No-frills readers will find themselves sighing remembering their own melancholy nights hiding from shenanigans in bushes while reading this collection, and that is entirely respectable.