Negative Tilt by Bobby Mathews

3 Mins read
Negative Tilt by Bobby Mathews front cover

Rural noir is having its moment in the sun and the ever-popular SA Cosby has been leading its charge. Writing about the South is nothing new – Ace Atkins and James Lee Burke have been doing it for decades – but the genre’s resurgence has brought a new and exciting diversity to the table, including the likes of Eli Cranor, Jesmyn Ward, Eryk Pruitt and Kelly J Ford.

Hailing from Birmingham, Alabama, Bobby Mathews has two novels under his belt, Magic City Blues and Living the Gimmick, but it is his short stories that best showcase his writing abilities. In Negative Tilt he has curated 20 of them including the collection’s namesake as well as eight pieces published here for the first time.

There is a good mix, which is what we look for in a short story collection. From the more literary to harder crime stories plus a couple bordering on horror. Each seems to have the right ingredients for the perfect short story – a strong beginning, an ending that either shocks or surprises, and a punchy bit jammed in between that hooks its reader.

Mathews eases us in with Negative Tilt, the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer winner for the Best Long Story published in 2022. Corey, a retrenched newspaper editor takes up repossessing cars for American Repossessors United, scouring the streets at night looking for missing cars. After 24 years as a reporter he accepted a severance package hoping to use the free time to write that first novel but swiftly realised that it wasn’t going to happen. It’s not an easy job, but he’s surprisingly good at it even though he hates the hours of driving. Additionally, repo work pays more than his previous job did. He was the one who worked late hours and put the newspaper to bed at the newspaper, but was it really worth it to give up his children, marriage, and all those years for?

Bertrand, the protagonist of The Swahili Word for Hope, on the other hand, is unwilling to work hard in order to succeed. His mother is an award-winning writer while he himself currently lectures at a college and aspires to be an author. Bertrand has no lack of confidence, considers himself a rising star and believes that his path to success is set in stone. His mentor, Professor Fogerty, a well-known Booker Prize winner, is not easily impressed and criticises Bertrand’s lack of skill and laziness. As people like Bertrand often do, he takes the easy way out – with disastrous results.

The protagonists in the stories that follow after are far more immoral and criminal than these two. In The Ghost of Buxahatchee Creek, the main character is being pestered by the ghost of the man he murdered by chaining his body to an anvil and throwing him into a creek. It’s a chilling depiction of small-town life in the South, where there’s little to do but grow peaches and cook meth.

In My Father’s Guns, the attitudes of some Southerners towards firearms, as early as childhood, are disturbingly depicted. The main character remembers that after Obama was elected, his father began collecting firearms and warned them that blacks, gay and Jewish people were coming to take them. It also deals with the relationship between a father and son and how a parent’s death results in a family falling apart.

Family dynamics are also at play in His Lucky Day when Eddie Whittaker wins $19 million in the lottery. His successful brother, Allen, has it all – the big house, the Mercedes and the beautiful wife. Naturally, Eddie wants to rub his newfound riches in his brother’s face. In A Good Night’s Sleep, a father struggles to keep up with his wife’s demands plus those of their two children and resorts to desperate measures.

One of my favourites from the collection is A Little Push. Podcaster April Daley wants to get the inside scoop on the life of hitman Brian Lindley, who killed over 60 people for money. But just how far will she go to ensure that her Just Plain Murder podcast becomes one of the top ten podcasts in the world?

There is something for everyone in Mathews’ collection. If you prefer your fiction with a side of social commentary, there’s Trap House which explores police corruption and blackmail. Do you prefer a deliciously noirish style and story? Try Dance the Night Away, set in a seedy pub in New Orleans where there’s always a party, or at least a wake, going on. From unrequited love in Whipping Post to something decidedly creepier in Daddy’s Little Girl, Mathews has it all.

The majority of these stories have a strong sense of place, whether it’s set in a bar or on the streets of a rural town. There’s a quiet restlessness that runs throughout, heightened by a beautifully descriptive and noir-like style. If you’re looking for a bite-sized read with twists in its tail, this is a good choice.

Also see Eryk Pruitt’s Something Bad Wrong or Eli Cranor’s Ozark Dogs.

Shotgun Honey

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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