Crawling From The Wreckage - reviewed

Cover by Joe Kubert

Let me confess, right off, that Cliff Meth is a friend of mine. Normally, I don't like to review books by friends, as it's difficult to be honest. However, I've been known to do it when a book is unlikely to be reviewed, at least in places like The Literary Review, whose title (you may have noticed) suggests the august presence of a tome.

Crawling from the Wreckage is not a tome. It is a collection of short stories, but even as such it is far from "literary," if by that one means receiving an official imprimatur from the highbrow literary mags. It's Meth's fourth collection, and all have been self-published. But this emphatically is not a case of vanity publication; Meth has vigorously promoted and sold his books via distributors to retail outlets, mostly comic-book stores, and each of his first three collections, beginning with Crib Death and Other Bedtime Stories in 1995 (Meth is prolific), has sold in the vicinity of 2,000 copies. Not much, if your criterion for excellence is best-sellerdom, but Meth says his company is making a profit. His latest book, Perverts, Pedophiles & Other Theologians, is being sold in Barnes & Noble stores and will be featured on the company's Web site.

But Meth is unusual in ways besides his route to success as an author. As I said, his books were first sold through comic-book stores (tres post moderne), and his stories are heavily influenced by that genre, especially the old E.C. comics with their weird, twisted endings. All his stories come illustrated, mostly by well-known comicbook artists like Dave Cockrum, Gene Colan, and Bill Messner-Loebs. Meth is partial to science fiction and fantasy and admits to being influenced by the work of Harlan Ellison. Moreover, Meth prefers inventive plots and brisk dialogue to dense, philosophical wool gathering.

While a Meth story is a "good read," it also is likely to take on a pressing social issue, like child abuse (see "Bruises" from Crawling). An orthodox Jew, Meth does not hesitate to go after Jews when they are doing bad things; his "I, Gezheh" (from The White Man Dancing, 1996) has achieved some notoriety for its indictment of corporal punishment at Lubavitcher yeshivas (Mesh discusses his battles with the rabbis in the introduction of Crawling and plays a variation on the theme in "The Rabbi at High Noon"). But Meth's social commentary isn't always dead serious; see "The Case of the Dying Corporate Workers," for instance, which is solved by a group called The Legion of Dysfunctional Heroes.

To me, the best story in Crawling is "Knee Jerk." It's a first-person story about a man, approaching middle age, who seriously injures his knee while practicing his jumping side-kick at a karate dojo. The pain, the intimations of aging and loss, and the ghost of what might have been a love affair close in on the character to create a bitter depression. He wonders if the torn ligament was God's punishment: "Was it some sort of poetic justice? . . . No. If it were, He'd have snapped off my click. My knee never did anything to anyone." This story is much less plot-driven than the typical Meth story and delves into the psychology of the male homo sapiens eyeball-to-eyeball with his own mortality.

If I have any criticism of this book, it has to do with a major drawback of self-publishing. A tough, experienced editor would have caught such solecisms as "lay" for"lie," "with she and I," and "more than most . . . workers can bare." But these kinds of errors are forgivable, as the writing throughout is lively, concrete, visceral even. The stories come alive in the imagination.

In his intro, Meth says that "if these stories have anything in common, it's the notion of redemption. Or the lack of it." Mostly the latter, I think. Meth's take on the future is not particularly uplifting. As he says at the end of "The Rabbi at High Noon," "some things never change." Nevertheless, Meth refuses to give up the fight. -- William Zander

The Literary Review (Fall, 1997)
COPYRIGHT 1997, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

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