Sheila's Reviews > Ugly to Start With

Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings
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Mar 13, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: cultural, coming-of-age, current_issues, relationships, young-adult, short-stories
Read in March, 2012

Short stories aren’t the same as novels. And literary shorts aren't even as simple as stories. They start somewhere after the beginning of the tale and end before the conclusion—at least, the ones I enjoy best do that, leaving the reader chasing after something precious, haunted by the need to catch up then hauntingly breathless as words run out.

John Michael Cummings’ Ugly to Start With is a set of literary stories that works just as well as a novel. Think Olive Kitteridge, or better still Kermit Moyer’s The Chester Chronicles. The stories have been published in various journals before, so you know from the start the writing will be good. But together they form a powerfully evocative novel of a young man’s coming-of-age in the wrong part of 1970s Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Washington D.C., only sixty-five miles away, might as well be on the moon, as might the gated community where Jason’s grandfather lives, or the ramshackle squalor of an African American town next door. A poor boy in an increasingly affluent city, a small boy in a world of the muscled and strong, an artist where finer sensibilities are generally despised, Jason’s struggles to fit in and find friendship play over a backdrop of junkyard, mountain and town, where the passage of time really does change things and people, and death is just a part of life, whether of cat or friend or family.

As I read the later stories in this collection I found myself thinking of Beethoven’s symphonies. Okay, it's a strange analogy I suppose, but I remember that feeling of a perfect ending, that moment when you want to pause and take breath and think “Wow,” but the music plays on, to another wow, to another, until the end. A friend tried to teach me musical appreciation and said Beethoven’s 'problem' was he didn’t know how to end, but it’s also part of what makes his music unique.

In John Michael Cummings’ stories I found the same feeling—the end of a scene, the indrawn breath, the “Wow,” but the story’s not done. I almost wished there were chapter divisions, or blank lines (perhaps there were and I missed them on my kindle) or some other separator so I could pause for longer. But I read on to another Wow, and on.

Recurring characters become vivid and real. The world shrinks and expands. Washington and dreams of art draw closer. And this collection of stories ends with one final “Wow” and the feeling I’ve just read a classic.

It’s billed as young adult but I don’t suppose I’m young, so can’t it be for all of us?



Disclosure: I received a free ecopy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest review.
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