One of the themes in Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories is Greg Herren’s ability with the unreliable narrator, or characters the reader trusts with a kind of shaky awareness that things are likely not entirely as they seem. “Cold Beer, No Flies” is one such story, and it delivers the punches after leading the reader to a place of empathetic buy-in for the character. Or at least sympathetic.
Here we meet a man in a dead-end town who works at a bar where he’s been entrusted to open five days a week. He’s young enough to still want to leave town, and dented and damaged enough from both his family life and his aborted time in high school to merit the sympathy and empathy I was talking about. His restriction to getting out of town is financial and educational: but he figures if he gets enough cash to take off (like his mother did) then he’ll be able to get his GED and find a job to at least be comfortable. He doesn’t want to end up stuck, not like a man he knows here in town better than many think he does.
The crux of the tale balances on this second man: a closeted, married man with whom the narrator had a clumsy kiss in high school before being outed himself and then violently assaulted—and then leaving school. That man witnessed the attack (he didn’t take part in it, but he did witness it) and while their initial interactions in the bar are awkward because of it, over time they restore something of a friendship. And then more. And then Herren turns it all on a dime with violence and death that are perfectly presented as simple choices that still bear the reader’s empathy—before a final twist that left me breathing out with something I wanted to be denunciation, but honestly was more of a sense of admiration, which only goes to show how well Herren crafts these characters. Well, that or it shows off my revenge streak. Probably both.