With enticing short-story collection, Idaho writer shows off dark, intelligent mind

Idaho citizen Jeff Jones can write. He was born to do so. He has a keen sense of language, is disciplined in not divulging everything to the reader, and he can write in many forms. That is why he is a MacDowell Fellow and a Bread Loaf Fellow in Fiction, and why his books have won several awards.

In his first novel, “Love Give Us One Death,” he provided a fictional account of the Bonnie and Clyde story in prose, journal entries, news announcements and a cartoon. In his new book, “Bloodshot Stories,” recently longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection, Jones delivers a collection of fables, gothic tales and mind-bending surreal stories.

The collection opens with “As You Are Now (So Once Was I),” a macabre tale in the spirit of Poe and Shelley. It is about a man, or zombie, who “came from somewhere east of the mountain, out where strange things hide in the shadows of the hills.” This fellow does not mind eating cats or dogs – “That was his first taste of flesh. It was flush with blood and sweet,” and he, as an ode to Bram Stoker, “sank his teeth into the man’s carotid artery.” Jones writes a narrative that includes a zombie chase, a visit from a pack of raccoons, and a scene in which skunk “pups took their first steps along his spine.” Throughout this story, the reader will marvel at the writer’s ability to blur the line between life and death.

“Dear Anastasia” – a cryptic tale set in the near future – is penned in the spirit of Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document.” The narrator, Martin Praeger, a terminally ill extremist who narrates a letter to his daughter Anastasia from prison, is serving time for a heinous act he committed against the United States. Through Praeger, Jones provides just enough information to the reader – “I haven’t told you about the crumbling of that second pillar. This happened before my involvement with the opposition” – leaving the reader to ponder many questions, including: What exactly was the heinous act Praeger committed that landed him in an Alaskan prison?

Jones’ obsession with the Russian story, which started in graduate school at the University of Washington, is seen in two tales: “Among the Dead” and “Snowmelt on Ice.” The latter story, set in the Pamir Mountains and told from the points of view of a living Ermolai and the ghost of Ermolai, allows the reader to experience the final years of the Russian Civil War:

A group of five red commissars trudged up the hill. The late afternoon sun dipped below the clouds and cast its light on the slope, stretching their shadows uphill. They called for the commanding officer, and Colonel Sorotov stepped out onto the ledge.

It is important to note that Ermolai joined the White Army to be with his cousin Stepan, who enlisted to fight “for the sake of the White Dream.” Like Tolstoy or Gogol, Jones takes the reader to the motherland to freeze in eternity with Ermolai: “Sunrises, like seasons, come and go. Some days depart without a single thought.”

Other stories in the Bloodshot include “Tribute,” a story set in Los Angeles about two in-love actors, but when WWII intervenes, everything changes; and “The Runciter Project,” a metaphysical account about terminally ill electrical engineer Gerald Runciter and his lover, Yakiv, who reviews Runciter’s notes “in fields ranging from philosophy to pharmaceuticals to animal husbandry.” During Yakiv’s commentary, he leads the reader to a stairwell where he does something unthinkable, asking the reader ponder, Do we have a soul?

“Bloodshot Stories” was a first-place winner in the category of Fiction (Short Stories) at the 2017 Sunshot Book Awards, and readers will find out just why when they delve into the dark, intelligent mind of Jones, one of Idaho’s pre-eminent storytellers.

Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.