“Rowdy swore it was piss.”
In its first sentence, Spent Saints & Other Stories sets its tone, sharp as saguaro and harsh as the desert sun. What follows are 10 linked short stories by debut author Brian Jabas Smith that examine the lives of the desperate and the downtrodden mostly through the eyes of its central character, Julian, as he moves from teenage bicyclist to subterranean alley dweller hooked on crack and King Cobra to Detroit journalist. The stories in Spent Saints talk about hurt and loss, forgotten lives and thinning hopes.
Part memoir and part fiction, Smith uses his experiences as a journalist at the Phoenix New Times and Detroit’s Metro Times, as a national class bicycle racer in Tucson and as recovering addict to fuel the stories in his collection.
Smith’s depictions of addiction and drug usage are visceral, upsetting and relatable, even for those who view this lifestyle as worlds apart.
In the story “Grams,” Julian recalls the first time he tried meth, saying, “So good was meth I didn’t need booze. Hand a suicidal alcoholic a concoction whose rush is an express train away from the tattooed herds, the tract-house grids, the dollar-store depression and an entire whole world designed for the well-adjusted, and I’ll show you a drug addict, no booze necessary.”
A thread runs throughout these stories, a longing to be a part of and accepted in a world that has been built for others, a deep-rooted sadness that exists within the essence of being. For the characters in Smith’s stories, hope is the only thing they need, yet it is the hardest thing to acquire. Thus, they turn to sex and drugs and crime; retreatism. To hell with not only the means but the goals, but in their hopes to escape a troubling world, they find an even worse underbelly of modern life.
Rowdy, who, in the first story “Lost in the Supermarket,” was remembering a time when a gaggle of children urinated on his head, shows up later in “The Delivery Man” with his face caved in by a rock. Lolly, the wife of a drug dealer named Jesus, has her eye removed in “Eye for Sin” after she snorted meth laced with insect eggs that then began to metamorphose in her socket. The characters in Smith’s collection appear caught in a horrific carousel.
Julian, later in “The Old Ladies in Church Hats,” seeks sobriety, attending AA meetings where “the church hat ladies taught me that nothing really ends; shit just changes. And the changes prepare you for when your heart finally stops beating, at which point you become a pile of compost, stinking and surrounded by flies.” A hopeless message for a book whose back cover boasts “beautiful portrayals of loss, ultimately, reclamation, and perhaps, redemption.”
While Julian ultimately decides not to shoot himself in the head with his .38 in “Ghosts and Fireflies,” the power in Smith’s stories comes not from its message, but from its language, its jutting and jarring dips and stops into puddle after puddle. Perhaps that’s the point Smith is making: life is not clean, especially not for these underclassmen. And if that is the point, then it was well made since we first saw Rowdy getting pissed on.
In Spent Saints, its language helps and hurts. Its description of scenery and horrifying tales of drug usage throw nods to William S. Burroughs’ novel Junkie, but its description of characters, particularly women, have a hint of Charles Bukowski machismo. Typically, men are described with ideas and attitudes, characters against the odds and battling the world, while women are described with attributes, butterfly tattoos between their breasts, shapes of bodies and hair color and facial features. Their ideas about life and drugs and hope and the world come secondary, a breath out of a body. Again, perhaps this is a point Smith is trying to make: this is how women are sexualized in this realm of society. And if that’s the point, then why is does Julian, “the hero” as later describe in the coda, also describe women with the same air?
Spent Saints offers more than a collection of shorts. In the coda is a playlist to go along with every story and a conversation with the author in which Smith describes an effort to bring the stories in Spent Saints to the screen, and with all its visions of seedy night life and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, there is plenty with which to work.