One strength of flash fiction is that it can transport you into a mood or state of mind in the time it takes to brush your teeth. One pitfall of flash fiction is that because of that brevity, it requires a certain diligence and attention to detail at a higher magnitude than short stories or novels. In this way, it’s more like poetry, except that flash fiction also requires a plot, where poetry usually doesn’t. Flash fiction has a beginning, middle, and end, just like a longer story. Something must happen, some turn must occur in the characters or the events.
Jack C. Buck’s flash fiction pieces in “Deer Michigan,” a collection coming out mid-November from Truth Serum Press, are different. They don’t adhere to a plot so much as they follow their own internal logic, a confessional “On the Road” style of unedited diaristic writing.
Indeed, one of his stories, “Dead Jack Kerouac,” is one long sentence fragment of 90 words that starts, “Forgot how it goes, but that one Jack Kerouac quote,” and winds on with prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and a handful of gerund phrases about “when he was headed west,” and “crossing over the state line,” and “seeing God in the sky,” and never gets around to saying what it was about that Kerouac quote.
Other stories play with the surreal, so much they’re almost silly. In “drink pop with mao,” the narrator gets lost and runs into Mao Tse-Tung eight miles off the trail in a desert outside of Denver. They live like nomads in the desert for a week, until the narrator goes into town for some Faygo and they drink pop together.
Despite the meandering of the characters and the plot, there is a faint sense of theme; the narrator recalls, “It feels as if all my late decided actions in life all finally made sense when last week I found myself well past the marked trail and still out hours later than I anticipated.” The narrator, like the story, is aimless and wandering. In the end, the narrator says, “I hope I get to live as long as Mao. He says you get better at life with more time.” It’s this hope for better things in the midst of ennui that permeates many of Buck’s stories and gives them their tone.
Another story in the collection, “3 minute and 34 second story at 8:13 in the morning,” veers closer to sweetness than most of the other stories, and in this way is a pleasant change of tone. It’s about a couple who calls in sick to work one rainy morning so that they can go stand under a certain awning in town and hold hands, in the rain. The potential for simple romance, for it to be about a moment in time when something significant shifts, gets a bit lost, however.
The piece recounts in ticking-clock style how they (inexplicably) had only “3 minutes and 34 seconds” to get to “the 3 by 3 foot spot they liked to stand.” It includes expendable lines like “She loved him and he loved her.” We’re told exactly how many seconds it took them to put on their rain jackets and boots. After wading through times and numbers and random details, we arrive at “With only 3.3333 seconds remaining they arrived to the 3 by 3 foot spot under the cafe’s awning.” If nothing else, I believe this vignette nailed that gauzy pointlessness to love and romance. But it is difficult to read as a story, with the expectations of tightness, clarity, and significance that a reader of flash fiction probably has.
The stronger pieces in the collection are almost post-apocalyptic. “when the water runs out,” begins with the most precise description of these types of Buck’s stories: “It’s the future, but it’s happening at this moment, which is leading to the future.” The Great Lakes are being siphoned for fresh water by an oligarchy of corporations, which will in turn sell that water to the highest bidder. The cities are the only places with running water anymore.
Meanwhile, the narrator says, “My friend Tony only makes 11 dollars an hour as a food runner at Applebee’s, how do they expect him to buy this new way of water?” So this group of friends goes around town to help people prepare for the inevitable, in the way that only hard-working and resourceful Midwesterners would do: they extract the bathtubs of willing residents and carry them to their roofs by ladder, to collect rainwater. These stories read true. There’s a bit of surrealism, a touch of the absurd, but a strong line of thought from beginning to end.
Some read almost like a parable. “The Great Flood,” for instance, and not only because of the biblical allusion. Despite the “great flood” underway, “it’s the last Tuesday night of the month, so we are reading” in shelter of the bookstore.
Some lines are just odd enough to draw you in: “There’s a gray old lady in a wheelchair with one of her boobs hanging out reading about rain and death, so we don’t really care about what’s going on outside.” Those gathered are undeterred when the roof collapses, simply opting to move to higher ground atop the parking garage. They keep reading. Buck’s subtlety and focus in this story makes it one you could go over again and again.
With 62 “micro-stories” in this debut collection, it’s bound to be a mixed bag—this review represents only about a sixth of those pieces. Deer Michigan would be a perfect read for someone willing to be challenged by Buck’s unorthodox approach to flash fiction. His writing capitalizes almost poetically on a mood, and draws the reader through that mood, regardless of the outcome of the story. Many stories will invite a second read and a share.
Sarah Wheeler is a writer, editor, and instructor, and she heads up the flash fiction section at Newfound. She received her MFA from Lesley University and teaches an online course in flash fiction for the program. She lives with her husband, two dogs, and cat near Seattle, WA.