Michael Kardos’ debut collection of 10 stories is not a book you’re likely to find on a table at Barnes & Noble. It’s too small-press for the mega-store, which means chances are slim you’ll casually stumble on it, probably not even in an online store, either. Such is the unfortunate fate of many noteworthy small press books, and the reason many of us last year missed out on Tinkers, published by Bellevue Literary Press, that won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
Press 53 is the small Winston-Salem, North Carolina publisher of Kardos’ noteworthy stories, a group of varied, humorous, inventive plots populated by distinctive blue-collar characters. The common denominator is the location of the New Jersey shore, specifically Breakneck Beach. Here, in one story, a boy experiences trust and betrayal with his dad as they share the common joy of fishing. In another story, a former bouncer at the Pink Pony strip club gets a job in Happy Land’s Castle of Horrors on the beach’s pier and literally scares a woman to death.
There’s also the local Wawa food mart, where the cashier spins a tale about her Missouri hometown of circus performers. She claims the town keeps a steady population count of 204, managing their deaths with births, and vice versa. It sounds far-fetched, and the narrator says he doesn’t know what to believe – we don’t either – and then Kardos springs a clever ending on us. This story is one of my favorites.
The strongest stories are in the last half of the book. “Maximum Security” and “Two Truths and a Lie” are among them. Kardos opens both with a character whose behavior sets up the story’s intent and then fades out. It has a strange and delightful effect that, at the end of the story, lingers in a halo of after-thought. In “Maximum Security,” that character is a pianist whom a boy mimics in this story about finding acceptance. In “Two Truths and a Lie,” that character is a composition teacher who asks his students on the first day of class to play a game in this story about a father’s gambling addiction.
I must call out the fact that the collection’s second story includes a talking rabbit and a bossy urn of dead man’s ashes. It’s a clever story about a man who creates fairy tales for his friends, but it doesn’t showcase Kardos’ strength, which lies in his keen ability to explore the sensitivities in relationships, especially when it comes to a son and his father. Because this magical story is early in the collection, it may dismay the less adventuresome reader, but it shouldn’t prevent continued reading. Kardos knows how to write engaging, original stories, and this collection is full of them.