Review: ‘Cut Road’ by Brent Van Staalduinen

Cut Road

Cut Road, as a collection of short stories, evokes the image of a body wrapped around a live grenade, a shield of bone and flesh that recognizes the inevitability of its brutal undoing. This acceptance loosens muscles, leaving the body, marked by both touch and the fear of being left untouchable, tenderized.

The stories present a world of mysteries, paradoxes, atrocities, and injustices, either confined to a budding awareness, or splattered across the surface of an already blemished reality. And yet, every element is fluid, constantly testing its ability to adapt to the rugged texture of the world it inhabits.

Staalduinen borrows techniques from poetry, suffusing his prose with tension that’s as narrative as it is subtextual. Senses bristle when the adult world collides with a child’s innocence, dreams are ripped apart by the present, the essence of being is twisted into a cramp.

What’s more, the various narratives are dipped in a heady, dreamlike aura. It cocoons them like a fireproof veil, both stemming and camouflaging the turmoil within. This creates the impression of stillness, but one tinged with hysteria. In a sense, it’s like standing in the eye of a tornado.

The rubber band of tension stretched across the pages leaves the characters chewing on a silent scream, feeding their helplessness until it begets a twisted state of serenity. This impression is particularly strong in the titular story, which places a group of tree planters on the tongue of a raging wildfire.

Staalduinen focuses on capturing an impulse, subduing it so it wears the body of the story it’s possessed by. Each one conceals a foreboding element, the elusiveness of which only spikes our pulses.

One of the ways the author does this is by honing in on relationships, leaving them raw and wriggling. As a result, the reality we enter is rendered by the characters’ brittle connections, both with people and the urges that mash the internal and the external together, forming a hernia of feelings. 

The more we plunge into Cut Road, the more the stories stretch, deepening until they become as consuming as novels. Staalduinen’s breakdown of the human psyche alone is enough to mine a hole for any reader to stumble into. Getting back up is the real issue.

The stories also begin to link thematically more obviously toward the end, passing a single stimulus through the prism of active duty to create a kaleidoscope of horrors. The tension crescendoes, leaving us blinking at the nakedness of the soul rather than the forces stripping it of its many fronts. 

But before this happens, the masks help pluck the characters from the edges of the hollow points, around which their lives are threaded. The protagonist in Buddy’s Mirror talks about his life being a movie, deprived of the sense that would turn chaos into substance.

And by subtly referencing Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage”, the story lends the collection a cohesive quality, allowing that bottled-up scream to finally rip its way to the surface.

Publication date: June 1, 2022 (Guernica Editions)

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