Where Alligators Sleep, by Sheldon Lee Compton. Foxhead Books. 160 pages. $18.00, paper.
I love flash fiction. I love reading it, writing it, teaching it, sharing it. In a world where our attention spans are shrinking and our desire for something new is ever-expanding, flash fiction is a powerful way to satiate and surprise, to deliver the jolt of a story straight to the vein. I thought I knew flash. I felt pretty comfortable with its range and scope, its genre boundaries and limitations. And then I read Sheldon Lee Compton’s Where Alligators Sleep. And everything I thought I knew and loved about flash fiction went sailing out the front door, hit the curb and was run over by a pickup truck.
Compton’s collection of sixty-six flash stories, some a few pages in length, some as short as a paragraph, is visceral. The pieces are risky, in some cases demanding the reader to work for the meaning, but the reward in finding the nugget of truth under the last layer is priceless. In Compton’s world, there is no standing safely on the beach, enjoying the breeze, gawking up at the distant sea birds and admiring your tan. Instead, each story forces you to crash into the looming waves, to struggle, to lose your breath for a moment, then surface, salt piercing the creases of your eyes, blinded, flailing, swept by the current, on the edge of an undertow, then to discover a rhythm, stretch your limbs, fill your lungs and haul yourself back onto the blistering sand. Yes, Compton can make the reader feel this way in the space of a page. And yes, you will want to hurl yourself back into the waves, over and over again, for the bittersweet addiction of having, for a moment in fiction, felt unutterably and unflinchingly alive.
It is Compton’s shortest stories that, for me, pack the most punch. In “The Barn They Built” Compton’s words fill only half a page, but the twisted emotions of a man, alone, filled with hate, sing out across the airwaves, leaving the reader dazzled, but uncomfortable. Why is the man alone? Why is he so tormented? It’s her horse with the “startled eyes,” but what happened to her? For the love of God, what happened to her? And who is “her”? Will the reader ever know? No. And therein hides another facet of the brilliance of this collection—questions are not answered, uneasy feelings are not soothed. The reader turns the page wondering, who is she, what happened? What happens to the horse? We’ll never know.
Or maybe we will. Compton’s short shorts are intimate glimpses into lives that may be our own, may be the life of someone we love or perhaps someone we hate. Compton doesn’t give the answers, doesn’t always point us in the exact direction and dole out the fates of his often nameless characters, but he gives us enough to keep us connected. These stories occupy the spaces between blinks and it is this fluttering of our mind’s eye that allows us to understand what is happening, even though the words on the page are keeping the cards close. “He hates each part of it and then the horse as a whole thing as well.” Blink. “Cloaked his face in hero smear, war paint, the face of his first father.” Blink. “Everything became that moment. Everything became silent. Everything became.” Blink. “A ragged rainbow with wheels.” Blink.
The longer stories, while offering slightly more detailed characters and plots, are still glittering microcosms narrowing in on one gut-wrenching, often shameful, emotion. One of my favorites, “Assignment,” exposes the awkwardness of unrequited love with glaringly unsentimental language. The narrator fairly hisses, “wish I was back there, wish Katie was looking for comfort like she used to, before we fucked, before I obsessed about her small tits and fat calves, when I knew she’d always need me. Katie should see this, what I can do, how far I’ll take things.” At first, we want to hate this character. What an asshole. What a loser, what a creep. But haven’t we all once stood at a distance and ached for something we knew we could never have? This same emotion is given more gentle treatment in “Helen and All Her Properties.” The asshole has become the sap full of longing, the nice guy who always finishes last. Instead of anger, this story ends with angst: “Releasing her elbow and spreading out my hand, I clenched my fingers together, the nails pressuring into the skin. She didn’t even notice, running her hands through her hair fast as bolts of lightning.” The stories “A Mountain So Lost” and “Sweet and Sour” hone in on this emotional theme as well. It cycles throughout the collection, given different treatment with different stories, a series of snapshots between blinks that paint a final picture of the emptiness felt for the one who got away.
These emotional revolutions are not limited to loneliness, though, and the pattern extends to stories of pride, grief, love, penance and, occasionally, forms of happiness. Even pieces that find grounding in historical figures—“Case Study” and “Billy the Kid After the Photo Shoot”—fall into the spiral of an emotional thematic sequence. In this way, amidst the heartache and, at times, revulsion—you’ll need a strong stomach to get through “Field Dressing a Man”—the reader always has something to hold onto. For though it seems as if we are alone in the sucking current and pounding waves, Compton’s narrative presence, in the almost imperceptibly designed structure and manipulation of every phrase, can be felt as the pulse of this collection. Where Alligators Sleep will charm you, will unsettle you and will worm its way under your skin whether you want it to or not. Ultimately, it will bring you face to face with the raw, gritty, often poignant and often terrifying, experience of being absolutely alive.
Steph Post is a novelist (A Tree Born Crooked, Sept. 2014), short story writer, editor, reader, teacher and dog lover.