★★★★★ Creek Bait by Richard Lutman is a moving collection of short stories steeped in whiskey, gunpowder, and sex. In the titular story, a young man moves across the country to pursue a career in filmmaking, only to find himself parked on a barstool at the local watering hole, pining for his long-lost lover. In “The Great Cause,” a lone soldier tracks his quarry over a ruined wasteland, dodging hordes of rats and trying to block out the impossible sound of children’s laughter. And in “De Nada,” an émigré to a beautiful coastal city courts a local heartbreaker, who draws him deep into a world of drugs and primal danger.
Fourteen stories in all, Creek Bait is everything a short story collection ought to be: it’s impressively varied; compulsively readable; and displays a natural writer’s talent for capturing plot, tone, and character quickly, as short fiction requires. Some of the stories here could be categorized as straightforward examinations of emotional turmoil, often pegged to the inescapable storm cloud of depression brought on by doomed love. Others are striking for their dreamlike atmosphere, most notably “De Nada,” which communicates its Gothic tone quite well, and uses richly descriptive language to bring to mind all sorts of unsettling images. Similarly, “The Magician” tells the story of a prostitute whose life changes when an ailing stage-performer is brought to her brothel for safekeeping. Through bright flourishes of text—not unlike the magnesium glow of a magic show—Lutman creates a tense, yet alluring, situation that readers will be curious to see play out.