Review: Damaged Goods by J. Travis Grundon


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Grundon’s collection is aptly titled “Damaged Goods” as it explores the battered lives of his characters. His stories are evocative of the crumbling rust belt, the sense that any one with any sense has moved away without sparing a look back, and well, if they do come back, its because there is something fundamentally broken within them. This isn’t big city noir… the rain slicked streets of New York or the sun baked crime of Los Angeles. These are stories of the bitter black heart of America, of rust and empty strip malls and broken unions and failed dreams.

The first story, “Run Straight Down,” plays out as a fairly straightforward investigation. A man is found dead, an apparent suicide by hanging, but there are too many questions left open. There’s no suicide note, and when Jake Russel, the guy hired by the dead man’s widow, checks the scene, he can’t figure out how the deceased strung himself up. What follows is a tour of a Midwest small town, from the local high school gym to a sleazy strip club, populated by a host of characters. From a basketball coach who wants the best for his daughters, to a couple of hard headed redneck thugs, to an opportunistic stripper and her overzealous boyfriend, each one feels more than just a cardboard stock character. This is the kind of story that could do well to be made into a film, with the hard luck private dick, his no-nonsense sister who’s probably better at his job than he is, and the miscellaneous cast of ne’er-do-wells. Unlike many such stories, Grundon doesn’t stop once the mystery is solved, but shows a bit of the aftermath as well, breathing life into the characters and the setting even after the last word is read.

Most of the other short stories also focus on the seedier side of small-town life. Be it a weed grower witnessing a murder, or a getaway driver being interrogated by a big time criminal after a heist goes sideways, these are stories that highlight that small town Americana isn’t all idyll and farmland and casserole dinners. It might make the reader wonder just how many bodies have ben dumped in the local river or buried out in the corn.

If there are stories that comes across as weaker than the others its when he delves into stories that cross over into horror or the fantastic.  “Laura, Laura,” which features a young woman with a penchant for deceit who discovers her lies coming true, ends up becoming a jagged edge of a story with the way it ends. “Committed” is Grundon’s take on a zombie tale (and yeah, I’m biased because I was done with zombies at least six years ago), as it follows a woman dealing with a sudden zombie crisis. To Grundon’s credit, he keeps it visceral, though at times he goes more for the gross out than a sense of terror. “Mable” is a vampire tale that gets too bogged down by Grundon’s need to tackle the why of the vampirism as well which bogged the story down, as did the exposition of how Mable became a vampire in the first place. On the plus side, it showed that even a supernatural creature can get bogged down in the banality of life, an interesting juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane.

Some of the shorter, flash pieces, feel like the experiments they are. Some were challenges regarding a photograph, and honestly, it feels as if those stories in particular could have benefited from some form of illustration… maybe not the original photograph, but one like it to better set the mood. The flash fiction reads like Grundon finding his footing with the form, not yet entirely comfortable, but getting there.

If you like your noir gritty and you know that every small town hides a dozen crimes, this is the collection for you.


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