Red Light Run
Baird Harper
Scribner
209 pages / $24.00 (hardcover)


Although its actual meaning is still a topic of debate among fans, Weezer’s “Undone – The Sweater Song” is one of the strangest and yet most evocative songs in my memory. I don’t seek it out necessarily, but if it’s on, I always find myself glad to have heard it again. While most of the song means next nothing as far as I can tell, the chorus has always held a certain attraction for me:

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If you want to destroy my sweater
Hold this thread as I walk away
Watch me unravel I’ll soon be naked
Lying on the floor, I’ve come undone.

This collection of lines was perhaps my first introduction to the idea of connected reality and that sometimes, to unravel the world, a person doesn’t necessarily need to experience a catastrophic event. Instead, the event, or job, or relationship, or town can be an anchor that rips victims apart even as they try to recover. Sometimes the attempt to move on is equally as damaging as the event itself, and nothing demonstrates the complexity, the beauty, and the heartrending sadness of this fact better than Baird Harper’s new collection of linked stories, Red Light Run.

A heavy and intense book, Red Light Run is a rumination upon the web-like structures of loss and recovery (or rather, the lack thereof) that connect our lives, and it demonstrates how pulling on one life untethers the apparently solid hold those around it have upon their own individual senses of reality. Within these pages, Harper also deals with guilt and blame as ephemeral, illusive qualities that often require an overly simplistic, surface-level understanding of the complexity of life and human relationships to be tenable at all. Here, the innocent and the guilty exist singularly within narrow contexts, identifiable only from specific angles and when viewed through just the right lens. Harper’s work doesn’t become so unmoored from reality that morality and ethics sink out of view entirely, but he certainly questions their veracity and seems to wonder how the world would still turn if we could dive into every painful event, every unfair, seemingly meaningless disaster and search the wrecks within for the kinds of broad-ranging stories that he provides readers with here.

Artfully woven through all of this complex emotional and narrative structure is the metaphor of the oak slayer beetle, a symbol of the larger rot that continues to grow in the rust belt and bible belt as sprawling wastelands of traditional America. What was once an arterial cluster of the American dream, sutured together with white picket fences and Norman Rockwell paintings has become, in Harper’s vision, a collection of burned out trailer parks, serial killers in dirty motels, alcohol dependency and heroin addiction, and much worse. Just as the oak slayer hollows out the mighty oak, taking a beautiful, hardened tree that has stood the test of time and turning it into a shell of its once glorious self, so too does a catastrophic experience hollow out the characters in these stories. And as readers progress from one story to the next, other incidents, disasters usually, appear in these pages and connect to a lineage of pain and heartache that has left lasting scars upon these characters and the world in which they live.

With all of this in mind, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the collection is Gothic in tone, pulling from traditions in Sherwood Anderson, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Conner in its depiction of a rural Illinois wasteland on the brink of physical, emotional, and psychological collapse. Harper’s prose is terse and direct, but carefully considered and artfully constructed, such that each phrase reads as if machined by a master. Every word counts, in other words, and a reader would be remiss if he or she simply breezed through these stories without looking for connective tissue between the stories (they are linked, after all, which Harper informs readers even from the title).

This emphasis upon a dark tone and setting, however, should not deter readers. No, it isn’t beach reading, nor was it intended to be, but Red Light Run is a brilliant exploration of how human beings deal with loss even as the world seems to crumble around them. Harper’s collection of stories is everything good literature should be, and its focus upon where desperate people turn even when they have reached a dead end is definitely worth the read.

The Clerk

**A copy of this book was provided without charge in exchange for an honest review.**

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