Having just read Warren Haustrumerda’s debut book, Tall Tales of Felony and Failure, my mind keeps telling me to sum it up with a single phrase. A complete reversal of the “life is pretty bad sometimes, but you can sometimes find peace” stylings of Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five, one can corrupt an oft repeated phrase from it and capture the essence of Tall Tales perfectly: Nothing is Beautiful and Everything Hurts. Upon finding that particular phrase with which to launch the rest of my thoughts about the book from, everything fell into place quickly.
Tall Tales is about two horrible people that are the cause of all of their own problems. They’re aware of this, and it’s that awareness which allows the reader to enjoy the ride as it escalates from petty crimes and drunken brawls to straight up murder for kicks. The world they inhabit is as indifferent to this as they are to it. There’s a very strong mesh of surreality that the characters navigate through, despite the settings and majority of the situations being completely based in reality. This becomes apparent when the protagonist’s ability to stop time (perhaps fueled by repeated head trauma!) is not only the core driver of the plot, but one of the few concrete threads the characters hold on to while feeling their way through that confusing mesh. Cranston and Tom are two low level navy men who never really get around to doing their job. As soon as Cranston discovers his time stopping trick, which ends up with a bar robbed and a man dead, they skip town and decide how best to make use of their newfound ability to do whatever they please. Despite the step by step plan to accrue cash and then power, they truly have no aspirations higher than drinking, screwing, and occasionally murdering someone who looks at them wrong.
The murder is handled matter of factly, despite the characters doing it for increasingly impulsive or selfish reasons. The details of these sprees are somewhat sparse, and the meat of the tale with regard to them is about the motivations, not the outcome. Considering that Cranston and his perpetually leaking headwound, and to a lesser extent Tom, exist outside of the reach of anyone that can stop them, they simply see it as a scam they pull. It’s this inability to see the higher picture of themselves that really puts the reader in the position to cheer them on while simultaneously reeling at the concretely awful things they do. As mentioned before, their world is a surreal take on our own, aided by extra-governmental agencies bred from conspiracy theories, the dim fact that Chicago was nuked by ‘terrorists’ looming in the background, and Cranston’s own splashes of audio-visual hallucination. When nothing can be relied on for stability, it’s not hard to see why the two leading schmucks are merely riding out their own obscenity-laced crime wave as long as they can.
Most of the issues I took with it were centered around its ending being abrupt. I would’ve felt cheated by there being some reversal of morality or last second revelation that sets all of the character’s wrongs right, but things just sort of end on a “okay, the story is done now” note more than a satisfying explosion to top all previous debauchery. After getting in touch with the author about it, he indicated that his publisher had him chop the last few chapters off for reasons that remain incomprehensible to me. The additional chapters, available on the author’s website for free, not only extend the fun times, but allow the story time to exhale all of the built up chaos. Not quite the brain melting denouement I was expecting still, but it fleshes out the story’s broken world further. Poking around Haustrumerda’s site leads me to believe he’s got further plans for the setting. It certainly wouldn’t be displeasing to see the world that spawned the likes of Cranston and Tom in further cringe-inducing detail.
It’s a short read, and I truly can’t suggest spending a lot of time agonizing over spending the three bucks or not. It’ll either be something you know you’ll enjoy or something you’ll do better off without. I can’t see there being much of a middle ground, given that this book takes place in a world where there is no black and white, just hazy clots of grey.