EVERY SHALLOW CUT by Tom Piccirilli (2011)
Review by Mike Dennis
What’s the deal with Tom Piccirilli? Doesn’t he realize too much backstory is fatal to any novel? That it absolutely has to be woven in to the story, not dumped up front? Doesn’t he realize you need ample dialogue to move everything along? The reader will, you know, get awfully bored reading all that narrative. There are, after all, rigid rules all writers must follow.
Well, maybe he doesn’t realize the existence of these rules, because if he did, he might not have written Every Shallow Cut (ChiZine Publications, 2011), a shattering novella of our times.
On second thought, maybe he does know about the rules, but broke them anyway, which makes him a far better author than most people realize.
Incredibly, the entire first half of this compact book (I read the paperback in its unusually small format) is nearly all backstory, with Piccirilli pulling a reverse, deftly weaving in the actual story while he recites the grim history of his nameless central character. Dialogue is virtually absent throughout this first half as well, leaving the reader to turn the page solely on the strength of the author’s bleeding prose, as he plunges us into a hard-edged tale of a man whose life has evaporated, who has lost everything in our troubled economic times.
This character is the quintessential noir protagonist. From the first page, he’s in deep shit, largely because of his own bad choices, and it only goes downhill from there. And as with all of us when we make bad decisions, the fiddler must be paid. Yes, Piccirilli follows the noir playbook perfectly.
But somehow, Every Shallow Cut transcends noir and its conventions. It leaps up and slaps you in the face and screams at you that maybe we’re all in deep shit, and maybe our decisions have nothing to do with it. Maybe we all have a screw quietly loosening somewhere in the darkest corners of our souls which, given the right circumstances, could eventually cause all of us to become unspooled.
In addition to the central character, none of the characters has a name, and this fits the story well, because, like it or not, names carry connotations which help bring fictional characters into sharp focus. Piccirilli’s characters are meant to remain cloudy in our mind’s eye, as if seen through a window streaked over with grime. This way, they are almost interchangeable with people we might know, maybe even with ourselves. Even the cover is hard to read. This all adds up to very little distance between the reader and the characters, making the reader uncomfortable and providing a more powerful emotional wallop.
Piccirilli is an excellent author, having written over twenty novels, along with numerous short stories and novellas, and this is not the first of his books that I’ve read. It is, however, the best. I’ve wondered why he’s not better known, why his books don’t sell in such numbers as to propel him into permanent status on bestseller lists. It might be because the American reading public is not ready for the likes of Every Shallow Cut. It’s a masterpiece far ahead of its time.