Flesh So Close

by K. Harvey,
ISBN: 1551280620

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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Jennifer Duncan

In his latest collection of short stories, The Flesh So Close (Mercury Press, 205 pages, $18.95 paper), Kenneth J. Harvey writes: "Only through battered eyes did the world begin to change, to disclose its delicate wonder." I don't know if Harvey's eyes are battered, but I do know that they are compassionate and unflinching as he turns his gaze on those open wounds that most of us are compelled to slide our glances past.

Often writers approach disturbing subjects in order to shock and they end up treating their characters as freaks. In "Better Not Mind Nothing", convenience store clerk Juke meets a couple that could have inspired a Pogues song with their brawling crassness. Juke is immune to the disgust they inspire in his fellow clerk. He ends up feeding the woman a cigarette behind the store as the man is having sex with her. When she asks him if he wants to climb on, Juke replies that he doesn't know and watches her stumble away singing a country and western song, as if admiring her willingness to put life in her mouth, no matter how bad it might taste. It is with this wary but unrelenting respect that Harvey embraces all his characters-the poor, the damaged, the violent, and those who try to take care of them.

Men are trying to take care in these stories. They hire an escort to be their son's mother for his birthday party, they comfort their noseless wife, they kill a lynx to feed an elderly mother, they struggle to support a daughter born deformed due to industrial pollution. In "Arrow and Heart Tattoo", a voyeur, having called the police, masturbates in front of a battered woman to comfort her somehow. In "The Flesh So Close", Henry tries to get his mentally-delayed mother away from his abusive father as she curls up naked in bed next to her other son.

But loving is often complicated by pain. It becomes something called "slum love"-something tortured and lost and doomed to failure even though its heart is in the right place. This is especially the case for families like "The Slattery Street Crockers", who are always swearing at each other, getting drunk, pregnant or arrested.

Despite the weakness of two alienation pieces (a man eating cereal and looking out the window, a man stealing a cab) and two surrealist pieces (a David Lynch-like scenario with broken clocks and car accidents, an entanglement of metaphors and abstractions titled a love story), A Flesh So Close is the most eye-widening collection I've read in a long time. By allowing his precise and restrained prose to leap into grand gestures that not only impress with their inventive lyricism but ring true as well, Harvey gives us not just gritty realism, but the poetic terrorism of their threat to our notions of what normal is, what beauty is, and what love is. 

Jennifer Duncan


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