To read Service is to learn the rules of engagement, and later, the methods of disengagement, if there can be such a thing. We slip backward and forward in time, one unwitting, vulnerable foot perpetually in enemy territory, one moment searching under the couch for a hair tie and the next moment, “in a hallway I will never be able to describe, I gulp crematorium-hot air and drip sweat onto the flak-jacketed back of my best friend, who will breach the door and survive the next several seconds. When I knee him he moves as if lives depend on it. Lives depend on it.”
The stories in Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out, Robert James Russell’s new chapbook out this month from WhiskeyPaper Press, follow a narrator perpetually on the verge. Over the course of 12 interlinked vignettes we see him come of age and stumble, get up and brush it off, always moving toward a greater understanding of what it means to be a son, a friend, a lover, a man. Russell is a quintessentially midwestern writer, and those who attended the recent Voices of the Middle West literary festival in Ann Arbor may remember him as a critical force in that conference—he helped bring in Stuart Dybek as the keynote speaker and organized panels featuring writers such Alissa Nutting and Laura Kasischke.