Review of ‘Train Shots’ by Vanessa Blakeslee

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Burrow Press

145 pages, $15.00

Review by Janae Green

 

“’Train shot,’” the bartender shouted at him, pinching a small glass between two nail-bitten fingers.

‘What?’ he shouted back.

‘Every time the train goes by, tequila shots are two dollars. You wanna train shot?’

—From“Train Shots,” by Vanessa Blakeslee

You could devour Vanessa Blakeslee’s first collection of short stories, Train Shots from The Burrow Press Review in one sitting, but that would be like slamming eleven shots in one hot gulp—even with an assortment of short story chasers, the warmth from the last short will burn in your throat.

Most pungent is Blakeslee’s title story, “Train Shots,” which features a depressed freight engineer who tries to cope with all the lives he’s taken—crushed by his train:

“’I don’t think I can take sitting home on grieve-leave for another couple of weeks. Going through all the same crap with the counselors. All I’ve ever wanted to do is drive trains. But this is getting to me.’

‘What’s getting to you?’

‘All the sadness,’ he said. ‘It’s incredible.’”

Blakeslee’s final story shares a heartache that readers will find familiar among the collection’s previous compartments: the search for safety and meaning. From silicon-breasted housewives to train engineers in “eggplant-colored velour blazer[s],” Blakeslee’s characters are real because they sit across from us on our daily commutes. As passengers, we catch glimpses into the characters’ lives and relate to them as they struggle to get by. Consequently, I think the guilty pleasure readers will appreciate most from Blakeslee’s array of personas is that their baggage is open; we can eavesdrop on them without detection. Much like Blakeslee’s opening story, “Clock In,” which sets not only an engaging—if not voyeuristic tone—to the collection, it establishes her ability to unravel life-size stories into compact spaces:

“Nancy keeps to the back office because of her smoking. That’s something no one talks about, Nancy smoking. She hides back there because she’s six months pregnant and doesn’t want the regulars to know. But everyone does know, about her smoking.”

Blakeslee’s fearless debut collection showcases a skilled range because her voice embodies convincingly human characters from all walks of life. Because Train Shots is a short ride, Blakeslee’s collection elicits a tight squeeze on the safety handles most of the way—and you will want to miss your stop just to keep moving.

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Janae Green is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She keeps a blog of her short prose and projects here.