Four American Tales


Fiction - Literary
59 Pages
Reviewed on 02/12/2018
Buy on Amazon

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Author Biography

Do you know that feeling when you are too busy with life really just to talk to your loved ones, to connect? Have you ever made a big mistake and had to deal with the consequences, not just for you, but for the people you care about as well? Do you sometimes look at your life and wonder where it’s going and what have you really accomplished?

These are the things I write about. My fiction is about people: the mistakes they make; the things they do to live with themselves; how the world changes them. Sometimes I like to write about people on the wrong side of the law; sometimes I write about safe, respectable people who encounter life unexpectedly; sometimes my fiction is set in the United States or England or elsewhere; a lot of the time I like to write from a woman’s perspective.

I try to write interesting stories in which things happen and people change. My first collection of short stories – Four American Tales – is out now.

    Book Review

Reviewed by K M Steele for Readers' Favorite

Four American Tales by Jack Messenger is a collection of four short stories: Wichega, A Hundred Ways to Live, Ballbusters on Parade and Uncle Mort. All four are set in America, and each story is concerned with money and power, secrets and the way they shape people, and so much more. The author admits to a love of Hemingway in his foreword, and these stories do indeed echo Hemingway’s economic language and expression. They are insightful and incisive explorations of the human condition written in accessible, evocative prose. The collection begins with Wichega. This is a skilfully written gem that stays with the reader long after finishing. Narrated by Sweet Pea, a young girl who, in her naiveté, reveals the darker dynamics at work in her family, Wichega captures a Depression-era feel, including the bleakness of poverty and the simple pleasures of childhood with equal clarity.

The second story, A Hundred Ways to Live, has characters that jump off the page. The years of fear experienced by the female central character is intensely wrought, and the narrative builds to a feeling of deep foreboding. Ballbusters on Parade is the weakest of the short stories in Four American Tales. The heavy irony of the narrator cancels his final attempt at pathos; however, it is still well-written and easy to read. The last story, Uncle Mort, is again concerned with family secrets and has a satisfying conclusion. Overall, Jack Messenger’s Four American Tales is an enjoyable collection from a writer in command of his language and craft.

Squeaky Joe

Jack Messenger’s first collection of stories throws up an eclectic mix of characters and situations, binding the tales together with themes of love and loss, struggle and ambition. The possibilities of starting again feature in the first two stories: ‘Wichega’ finds a classic automobile prodding a child into imagining what might be happening to her family when they move to a new town. The search for stolen loot and possibility of a fresh start, carry ex-con Earle and his patient girlfriend Nadine across the dessert, in ‘A Hundred Ways to Live’. In ‘Ballbusters on Parade’, we focus on the sex industry when a man discovers he has a particular asset that could change his life – but will it enable him to hang on to his girlfriend? In the final story, ‘Uncle Mort’, Helen inherits property, but her relationship with her husband opens up the rift between them as they strive to work out what to do with a run-down house.

Featuring mainly strong female characters who face challenges that could change their lives, this is a fascinating collection that demonstrates a talent for language and character. The ‘voices’ in each story are very different, which often signifies a highly talented writer. In this case, the author shows he can write intelligently and inventively in a variety of styles while still keeping his audience engrossed.

It’s always nice to jump on the literary train at the start, and I’ll be looking forward to Jack Messenger’s next book with relish.

Spartan

This is a fantastic collection from a really talented author. 'Wichega' is a hot, dusty and powerful glimpse of desperate and shattered lives seen through the eyes of an innocent. Jack puts you utterly in the place and the person from the very first line - it's so moving I nearly cried. '100 Ways to Live' leads you down a corridor of plot lines with the doors left just ajar, full of haunting expectation. You really feel the loneliness and desire for a better life. Don't even get me started on 'Ballbusters' - expect the very unexpected (and funny). 100% recommend this collection.

Alison D.

Each of the stories in this compelling collection works so well in its own right, while taken together the tales form marvellous variations on the themes of knowing, not knowing, and fighting against knowing when the truth is unpalatable. Precise and often poetic phrasing, an intellectual and emotional affinity for the times and places in which the stories are set, and pitch-perfect voices, particularly in Wichega, combine to make this a memorable collection. The author is adept at creating suspense, but displays a masterly turn for comedy too. His versatility is one of many reasons I look forward to reading more of his fiction, and recommend it to everyone.

Atalanta Reader

Jack Messenger is a natural storyteller. And he has a nice ear for the spoken word, whether it’s a poor rural, southern family or a more modern woman living in New York. I think it’s because of the richness of the spoken dialog and internal dialog that he draws such believable characters.

This is a fine collection of short stories. The third one about a young man who goes to work in the sex industry was like nothing I’ve read before, leaving me a tad uncomfortable. “A Hundred Ways to Live” features a woman picking up her boyfriend when he gets out of prison, hoping a wad of cash is still waiting for them from his last big heist.

But one thing all four stories have in common is that they’re about people trying to deal with failures.

I had a great deal of sympathy with little Sweet Pea in the first story – “Wichega” – about a dirt-poor family struggling to survive as Sweet Pea’s father, just out of prison, seems bound and determined to repeat his past mistakes. But I connected most with Helen in the last story, “Uncle Mort.” She feels guilty and vulnerable after her old uncle dies – guilty that she didn’t visit him and vulnerable because his death seems to represent the death we all face.

Ginger Bensman

I read a lot of short story collections. Alice Munroe, Flannery O'Connor, and William Trevor are some of my favorite authors, so a short story collection has to be pretty great for me to read past the first one, and Jack Messenger’s new collection kept me reading. The collection includes four evocative short stories.

“Wichega” is the reminiscence of a woman past 60. She recounts the last days when she and her mama, daddy, and little sister, May Alice, were together as a family. The narrator and May Alice are warned about the Wichega (a Wichega is something frightening that lurks unseen at the bottom of the pond across the highway from their house waiting to snare unsuspecting (and disobedient) children and drag them to the bottom). Of the four stories, “Wichega” was my favorite (I read it twice). I loved the language; one passage in particular: “Seemed like that summer the air was full up with heat and bugs and things blown about. All I had to do was hold out my fingers and catch life on the wing.”

“A Hundred Ways to Live” is the story of Nadine and Earl coming together again at the end of Earl’s stint in prison for being an accessory to armed robbery. We watch them tentatively testing their relationship after the long separation and heading toward a future that may or may not be the path to the life they’ve been counting on.

In “Ballbusters on Parade,” a young man drops out of college and takes a detour from the “conventional” future his family had in mind for him to go into the adult entertainment industry where he builds a lucrative (and somewhat perverse) career for himself – but at what personal cost?

In “Uncle Mort,” a woman gets a surprise bequest from an elderly uncle she hasn’t seen in years, and in claiming it, comes to a new understanding about herself, her past and her future.

Jack Messenger writes serious fiction. All four stories in the collection are original and engaging. These are great stories. I think any reader of serious fiction will enjoy them.

Connie Lacy

Jack Messenger is a natural storyteller. And he has a nice ear for the spoken word, whether it’s a poor rural, southern family or a more modern woman living in New York. I think it’s because of the richness of the spoken dialog and internal monologue that he draws such believable characters.

This is a fine collection of short stories. The third one about a young man who goes to work in the sex industry was like nothing I’ve read before, leaving me a tad uncomfortable. “A Hundred Ways to Live” features a woman picking up her boyfriend when he gets out of prison, hoping a wad of cash is still waiting for them from his last big heist.

But one thing all four stories have in common is that they’re about people trying to deal with failures.

I had a great deal of sympathy with little Sweet Pea in the first story – “Wichega” – about a dirt-poor family struggling to survive as Sweet Pea’s father, just out of prison, seems bound and determined to repeat his past mistakes. But I connected most with Helen in the last story, “Uncle Mort.” She feels guilty and vulnerable after her old uncle dies – guilty that she didn’t visit him and vulnerable because his death seems to represent the death we all face.

Kathy Davie

A collection of four short (short!) fictional stories about events in four separate tales of American lives.

This eBook was sent to me by the author for an honest review. And if it sounds good to you, go get it over at Amazon right now [11 Feb 2018], as it's free.

The Stories
”Wichega” is a sweet sad tale of a young girl’s perspective of life when her daddy comes back into their lives with his "new” yellow Oldsmobile. And I surely did enjoy Messenger’s use of dialect to give "Wichega” flavor.

”A Hundred Ways to Live” just had to have a bad ending, but that Messenger was dang sneaky! Leading me on with this tale of treasure and robbers and the woman who waited. Leading me on to thinking dire thoughts, so the real ending was a surprise and an unexpected hope.

”Ballbusters on Parade” was really odd. I mean, how many guys do you know who would be proud of their extremely small penis? It's an unexpected variation — and a crack-up — from the usual American success story, lol, while Messenger pokes fun at the porn industry.

”Uncle Mort” was uncomfortable with Helen’s sudden blow-up. I never understood it, and I wish Messenger had given me more than these bits. It wasn’t helped by the very subtle implications about Uncle Mort and Helen’s mother and yet more tidbits that Helen recalls of her past. Still, Messenger did raise up my emotions with a good show.

The Cover and Title
The cover is nicely done with a close-up of the waving stripes of an American flag that fades into a royal blue sky of clouds. Front and slightly to the right of center is the iconic tower of cement block with "Greyhound Bus” in blue and the racing greyhound at the top. The title and author’s name are in white and justified left, but the title is in an Art Deco-style font at the top while the author’s name is in a simpler font at the bottom.

The title let’s you know there are Four American Tales, short stories, you know.

Colin Garrow

Jack Messenger’s first collection of stories throws up an eclectic mix of characters and situations, binding the tales together with themes of love and loss, struggle and ambition. The possibilities of starting again feature in the first two stories: ‘Wichega’ finds a classic automobile prodding a child into imagining what might be happening to her family when they move to a new town. The search for stolen loot and possibility of a fresh start, carry ex-con Earle and his patient girlfriend Nadine across the dessert, in ‘A Hundred Ways to Live’. In ‘Ballbusters on Parade’, we focus on the sex industry when a man discovers he has a particular asset that could change his life – but will it enable him to hang on to his girlfriend? In the final story, ‘Uncle Mort’, Helen inherits property, but her relationship with her husband opens up the rift between them as they strive to work out what to do with the run-down house.

Featuring mainly strong female characters who face challenges that could change their lives, this is a fascinating collection that demonstrates a talent for language and character. The ‘voices’ in each story are very different, which often signifies a highly talented writer. In this case, the author shows he can write intelligently and inventively in a variety of styles while still keeping his audience engrossed.

It’s always nice to jump on the literary train at the start, and I’ll be looking forward to Jack Messenger’s next book with relish.

Jim Nichols

In Four American Tales Jack Messenger introduces us to four very different Americans.

Messenger opens with “Wichega, a story tinged with a supernatural spookiness closer to Flannery O’Connor than Stephen King. We don’t know exactly where little Sweet Pea and her family live, but the language suggest it’s someplace with big hills and deep hollows. There are legends of frightening things that might eat little girls there, places with, “a bridge that rattled like old bones.” We learn with Sweet Pea, that maybe legends have a basis in truth.

From the gothic world of Wichega, we roll into noir territory with, A Hundred Ways to Live. A just released inmate and his girlfriend hit the road in a stolen white Plymouth Roadrunner with a plan to recover a fortune in an old mining town. And it looks like Nadine and Earle are on their way to easy street, except for a bird up in the sky that seems to be following them and gives Nadine the willies. With its premise and its hardboiled dialogue, A Hundred Ways to Live seems it might have been at home in one of the great old pulp magazines.

The howling pain of the third protagonist in Ballbusters on Parade, is vivid and achingly realized, so much so that it seems nearly visceral to the reader. The story itself might be categorized as comic fantasy, but a very painful one. Hints of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge may lurk somewhere in there.

By far, the strongest of Messenger’s four tales is saved for last. In Uncle Mort, Helen reluctantly attends the funeral of her elderly alcoholic uncle and finds herself surprised when unexpected emotions well up. Memories of Uncle Mort and her mother laughing and drinking together arise and there is a fluttering of nostalgia. When she returns home to New York and her husband, Helen learns she is heir to Uncle Mort’s pitiful kingdom. Prepared to sell the old house, she travels there with her husband. More memories are awakened once there and thinking she might not sell drives a wedge into her already fraying marriage. Helen understands much more about herself and her family when an elderly neighbor hands her something that makes it all slip into place. In Uncle Mort, Messenger reaches for something deeper and we see him writing in a style that could only be described as his own. As well-written and engaging as the first three stories are, after reading the last of Four American Tales, we want a lot more of this particular and talented Jack Messenger.

Joanne

A quartet of brilliant stories.

On starting this collection with the first story, Wichega, I was immediately drawn in by the wistful, melancholic voice of Sweet Pea, telling her story so powerfully. This story is so evocative of memories, of sights and smells and sensations, that I almost felt that I was right there in the scene. This story is such an engaging way to open the quartet of stories.

Messenger's writing is equally powerful and emotive in the other stories. The characters are developed richly, each having their own distinct voice and mannerisms that portray far more than what is told of them in the stories themselves.

These stories, and the characters in them, are varied enough to keep the reader engaged and curious throughout the book. There is neither cliche nor repetition in the plots, characters and imagery delivered by Messenger.

These stories are, without doubt, American in both style and setting, at different times reminding me of the imagery and eloquence of John Steinbeck.

This is the first of his books that I have read, but I definitely hope to read more of his writing. I enjoyed Four American Tales very much.

Mark Gordon

I have often thought that writers of fiction have a chameleon-like ability to change their colours in accord with the characters and atmosphere about which they are writing. This is strongly felt in the work of Jack Messenger. In his short story, Wichega, the first of four stories in his collection, Four American Tales, we are immediately immersed in the tones and language of the American south, so much so that I began to wonder if the author had been raised there.

Although the story begins at a leisurely pace, every word seems to count, adding to our acquaintance with Sweet Pea, its main character, a young girl of nine or ten. The mother warns her not to go near the lake, where the dreaded Wichega lives. We learn that her father is a small-time thief always a step ahead of the law, forcing the family to move homes frequently. Everything gathers us to the ending. I found myself saying, “oh, no” the closer we approached it, and then found myself in tears. How can this be, from nothing to tears in a few pages? That is the mastery of Jack Messenger, the author who carries us there.

Unerringly, the hues change from story to story, from the atmosphere of alienation in One Hundred Ways to Live, to the outlandish, satirical humour of Ball Busters on Parade, to the intersection of childhood memory and death in Uncle Mort. Messenger’s language is precise, the right word, that gives you the feeling you are holding its weight in your palm, admiring its glint. These short stories, in my opinion, stand with the best in the form, and I would unhesitatingly place them on the same shelf with authors like Salinger and Carson McCullers.