Stories of cities

Street Smart x 7: A Street Smart Series Omnibus, edited by Alison M. Lewis

5 minute read
Book cover: title in green and white, appearing diagonally over an image of stairs in shadow.

Street Smart x 7: A Street Smart Series Omnibus from Philly indie publisher Frayed Edge Press is a collection of stories which were originally published as individual novelettes: an homage to the travel literature commonly found in French train stations and consumed by commuters and travelers looking for a good yarn to fall into during their journeys. Edited by Alison M. Lewis, this collection’s stories are quite different from one another, but with the unifying aspect of vivid characters and urban settings (where various cities become characters in themselves).

Short-form media always comes with a sense of tension. Will it deliver a full story and a satisfying conclusion, or will it end long before it’s had a chance to make its point? Fortunately, all of these stories feel finished and full, perhaps because they were first cultivated to stand on their own.

An anarchic opening

Full Fair (by French writer Jean-Bernard Pouy, in a rare English translation by Carolyn Gates, Jean-Philippe Gury, and Robert Helms) is a viscerally descriptive and melancholy piece that examines how the desire to ignore social ills like homelessness actually exacerbates them, and how the theory and posturing of self-styled activists can’t overcome a lack of planning and strategy.

Witnessing broken people confronting a broken system through the eyes of a fairly passive protagonist makes this story frustrating in a good way. There are a lot of subtle layers or commentary to be found within this piece, and once it gets going, the suspense is thick.

Some readers will find an animal-loving protagonist endearing, even if said protagonist is the architect of his own suffering and is unconscionably awful to the people around him. For other readers, getting through R.A. Bolo’s Down and Out in Paris, with Cat might be a bit of a slog. Still, there’s a straightforwardness and skill to the writing that is engaging. Any story that can elicit from a reader frequent annoyed responses to the thoughts and actions of its lead character deserves some praise.

Rounding out this collection’s opening trilogy of stories written by anarchists, A.R. Melnik’s The Accidental Anarchist is the first one with a likable and proactive protagonist. Caroline finds herself stepping into an auspicious place due to a split-second decision to help a young lady named Mugwump when she could have easily ignored her. Though the story is firmly rooted in reality, it evokes thoughts about how destiny’s unseen hand may gently nudge people into the spaces and places they are meant to be.

At the core of this story is human connection and the merit of bold actions. There’s also a worthy discussion to be had about how much risk is appropriate for a self-appointed savior to place on the heads of those they see themselves trying to save.

Gender, sex, and socialization

Matthew Kastel’s Stealing MacGuffin is the collection’s longest story with the most involved plot. MacGuffin has all the makings of a naughty romp, but it gets bogged down with clunky sentences and poorly placed asides. Still, the plot is original and there are lots of fun setups in the story. There will be those who appreciate what it has to say about male sexuality and aggression, and those who will absolutely despise it.

Pele’s Domain, by Albert Tucher, is the one story here that could be equally successful as a full novel. The central murder mystery is intriguing, but not the main focus of the piece. That would go to protagonist Jenny: the relatable rookie constantly in her own head, critiquing her every move, to assert herself in the male-dominated law-enforcement field. This is a very good novelette, but would have made a better novel so that all the story’s ideas could be explored in more depth, and it could fully inhabit its extended volcanic eruption metaphor. This story may also be in conversation with MacGuffin about sex-based socialization.

The Bear and The Day

Stephen St. Francis Decky’s Make the Bear Be Nice is a stunning character study and the jewel of this collection. It has something authentic to say about grief, mental illness, family, friendship, and healing. The protagonist’s journey is one that the reader can invest in. We can appreciate his process as he serves as a rock for himself, his friend Jimmy, and his sister Robin. In contrast to the protagonist’s steady presence, Jimmy’s erratic behavior and off-color comments provide some moments of uneasy levity, and others of deep pathos. Jimmy’s sister may be the most relatable of the three in her quiet suffering. This story proves that adages like “people need people” and “know yourself to improve yourself” are strong enough platforms for a story to stand on. The Bear might just bring tears to your eyes.

Unlike the other entries, Shelonda Montgomery’s The Day is Gone (the final story) is not tightly focused on the main character, with a change in perspective that is mildly jarring. The story is told in short vignettes, snapshots of a family as it is reshaped by adversity and financial instability. This gives it an almost cinematic quality, reminiscent of Crooklyn in the 1990s or Claudine in the 1970s.

While the mother, Nora, is the protagonist, she acts as an observer through much of the beginning of the piece, allowing her son Walter’s abundance of personality to provide a lot of humorous beats. Though underneath her character’s beyond-his-years knowledge and casually world-weary comments, Montgomery has something to say about how lower-income city living has effects that we don’t often think about, such as the loss of wonder and innocence of children born in these circumstances.

Overall, Street Smart x 7: A Street Smart Series Omnibus is a worthy collection for those who missed out on these stories as separate publications.

What, When, Where

Street Smart x 7: A Street Smart Series Omnibus. Edited by Alison M. Lewis. Philadelphia: Frayed Edge Press, November 15, 2022. 210 pages, softcover; $18. Get it here.

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