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Tucson Weekly Tough Luck

A Mixed Collection Of Work By Kent Anderson Is A Powerful Narrative Of Uncomfortable Circumstances.

By Jim Carvalho

MARCH 15, 1999: 

Liquor, Guns, & Ammo, by Kent Anderson (Dennis McMillan Publications). Cloth, $30.

I'm just white trash who got tough and lucky...another guy who rides the bus--nothing more, nothing less. Only difference is that I got the words to write about it.

--from the introduction to Liquor, Guns, & Ammo

KENT ANDERSON GOT tough and lucky in the Merchant Marine, in the Green Berets, and as a street cop in Portland and Oakland. And his widely acclaimed novels--Sympathy for the Devil, based on his experiences in war, and Night Dogs, based on his experiences as a cop--prove he's got the words to write about it.

Now, in a hard-hitting new collection of short pieces, Anderson solidifies his reputation as a man willing and able to write unflinchingly about uncomfortable subjects. Liquor, Guns, & Ammo (published by Tucson's Dennis McMillan) contains nine pieces of non-fiction and three pieces of fiction, including a screenplay. The delightful choice of subject matter in the non-fiction pieces--bullfights, cockfights, biker rallies, militia meetings, mercenary conventions, drug use--is reminiscent of Harry Crews' wonderful Florida Frenzy collection. But where Crews filters his observations through the lens of his rural childhood, Anderson's views come through the lens of his war experience. This is most evident in "Blood and Redemption," where Anderson mixes Juárez bullring action with grueling combat narrative.

The two best pieces in the collection are "outtakes" from Sympathy for the Devil and Night Dogs, which demonstrate Anderson's strength: his ability to powerfully and convincingly describe atmospheric setting while at the same time providing valuable character insight. In this respect, his style recalls that of Leonard Gardner, whose Fat City contains some of the most beautiful and deceptively simple setting and character descriptions ever written. Take this walk in the park from "Outtakes from Sympathy for the Devil":

Sears Park had once been green and pleasant, but in the last few years people who were "just passing through" had been using it as a campground and the grass was dying, littered with empty cans, plastic bags, and empty bottles of Honeyrose Tokay wine.

The park was crowded, and dust rose from patches of dirt where the grass had been worn away. Hanson passed an emaciated speed freak who looked up from where he was lying in the dirt and asked him, "Spare change?" Hanson kept walking...

The smell of dogshit hung over the park, and snot-nosed children with names like "Harmony" and "Sunshine" dug in the dirt with sticks. Someone was playing a guitar badly.

"Shank," a 1991 screenplay, is the most troublesome piece in the collection. One of nine biker scripts that Anderson has written, "Shank" contains many of the same characters and events the author witnessed and recorded in "Sturgis," a non-fiction piece he wrote in 1989, which is also included in Liquor, Guns, & Ammo. "Shank" has plenty of over-the-top action and humor, but its screenplay format is difficult to read and peppered with distracting layout problems. And an enticing character named Alicia--a half-Mexican teenager who wears braces and handles a gun with aplomb--makes much too brief an appearance.

Other pieces have editing glitches: "Blood and Redemption" contains a couple mistakes sure to rankle bullfight aficionados; "Barranca del Cobre" contains a description of torch-cut steel as "jagged as an ax" (axes, of course, aren't jagged); and "Outtakes from Sympathy for the Devil" contains a careless redundancy concerning bald mannequins who've lost their hair.

These concerns are minor, however, and do little to detract from the overall power of Anderson's writing and emotions. In "Call It Neglect of Duty" (his scathing thumbs-down review of the short-lived television show Tour of Duty), Anderson relates a conversation he had with iconoclastic filmmaker Sam Fuller. After a special showing of Fuller's war film, The Big Red One, he tells Anderson he tried not to "show any emotion more than once" in the film. Anderson asks, "What about the emotion you feel...when you kill someone who was trying to kill you, and you stand there, looking down at this dead guy, thinking, 'I'm alive and he's nothing,' and you feel great?" Fuller replies, "That's not in this movie...but that's the most honest emotion that comes out of war." Liquor, Guns, & Ammo is filled with just such honest emotion. And Anderson's honest rendering of that emotion, and others like it, offers gut-wrenching insight into experiences most of us will never know, and emotions few of us will ever understand.

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