A few months ago I read an amazing story on Shotgun Honey. The Floating Man was short and tightly written and hinted at a dark imagination I just couldn’t resist. And it is dark inside Keith Rawson’s head, blacker than crackwhore’s rotted out mouth.
In The Chaos We Know Rawson plays the part of a 21st century Hogarth, documenting a world we wouldn’t want to live in; trailer parks and dive bars, crack kitchens and hick suburbs, places where the grimmest casualties of the American dream wash up. His cast of blue collar characters are constantly aspiring but time and again they are dragged back to the gutter, sabotaged by genetics or circumstances or sheer bad luck.
The first piece, An Appointment With Larry, is an acidic vignette about the personal politics of dealing meth and it sets up the collection perfectly. Expect no loyalty, no love and no mercy.
Meth is a constant in this book, more than a theme, it becomes a character itself, driving the plot of many stories, acting as backdrop to others, and Rawson clearly has strong feelings about its destructive effect on society.
One story after another features basically decent people pushed to extremes by addiction and Rawson brings an unflinching eye to the subject. The descriptions are brutal but also matter of fact; this is reality, Rawson seems to be saying, I don’t need purple prose, just look at what’s happening here.
The Anniversary Weekend is perhaps the most potent meth-story in the collection; pure Rawson. It begins with a killer hook and he gradually teases out the story of how Jeanie got locked in a box for eight hours by her husband. We know it’s going to be bad but Rawson builds to a scene of explosive domestic violence which contains the most nauseating eyeball related injury I’ve ever read.
Throughout the collection Rawson confidently steers his characters through encounters and situations which could easily descend into trash-territory and it is a huge credit to him that even when a sex-starved cop is get arse-raped by an Asian transvestite part of you is thing, yes, I could see that happening. And I can believe he enjoyed it.
Rawson’s most successful stories for me are the ones where he steps out of the underclass. What I Lost Along With My Keys is a nifty slice of white collar apathy, colourful and well structured. In Clinical Trial he cleverly marries the amorality of militarised science to the whatever-it-takes attitude of a man trying to get rid of a troublesome ex-lover. Is it a comment on Big Pharma? I’d like to think so.
The standout story for me was the final one, The Lesson of Blood. It is deceptively simple, an ex-wrestler gets into a fender bender with his young son and dismantles the other driver. The writing is taut and atmospheric, the construction quite elegant. But the real genius lies in Rawson’s placing it there, at the end of the collection, as a coda.
And, as with all good codas, the meaning is ambiguous.
Do we read The Chaos We Know as an extension of the fictionalised wrestling matches the character’s father despises? All good fun and nobody got hurt? I don’t think so. I think Rawson wants us to understand the reality unpinning his work. This is the way the world is, brutal and ugly and it isn’t going to get better anytime soon.
This is a strong collection from start to finish, cohesive and confidently written, promising great things from Rawson in the future.
The Chaos We Know by Keith Rawson is available now