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by W. Mark Giles

Knucklehead, W. Mark Giles’ first collection of short fiction, is an eclectic mix of stories and experimental pieces. The title and cover art are misleading, implying yet another collection of gritty urban tales of boozers and prostitutes. Knucklehead is more ambitious and accomplished than the usual offerings of that genre.

Giles has assembled a wide range of characters: a mother whose child is in remission; a sales manager who compiles a list of acquaintances who are now dead; a man who is alienating his family after losing his profession and his place in the world. All of these portraits demonstrate a knack for realistic characters and dialogue.

Giles’ style is polished and assured throughout. In the title story, a family man and his biker neighbour (who owns a Knucklehead Harley) coexist in a suburban hell of suspicion, harassment, and escalating violence. The story poses the question, if good fences make good neighbours, what does an emotional Berlin wall create? In the excellent “Remission,” a mom barely gets through her grim days caring for her son, who is recovering from an unnamed bone disease.

However, the collection does not completely succeed. The prose occasionally feels flat and overly workshopped, and the longer pieces are slightly padded. The half-dozen shorter pieces are mere sketches – “postcard” stories much loved by fiction contests but which are unsatisfying in book form. The forays into more experimental prose also fall short. In stories such as “Towards a Semiosis of Two-headed Dog,” the subject matter – grief – is too delicate for the pretension of the title. The style jars with the subject, the content is stolen by form.

While Giles’ reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, ambition is never a flaw in a fiction writer. Knucklehead is a solid debut.