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Book Review: Chuck Howe

If someone were to consider Chuck Howe’s entire approach to writing and storytelling on the strength of his collection of (very) short stories If I Had Wings, These Windmills Would Be Dead, they would probably decide that Howe is not a writer who deals in verbosity.

A lot of stories are packed into the book’s frame, which totals less than two hundred pages. Many of the pieces, which are told in the form of soft-spoken, lucid recollections, barely fill a second page. You’re not going to feel cheated by how quickly these stories arrive, reveal, and depart. Nothing about If I Had Wings feels rushed, or as though important details are being omitted, all in the name of economy. Howe simply knows how to tell a good story in just a few hundred words.

With only those few hundred words to serve him, he knows which buttons to push, and he knows the value of the stories he’s telling. That value is clearly significant to himself, but he also writes as though he’s aware of each story’s potential to connect to our own memories. Even the most humorous stories in If I Had Wings have an empathetic tone to them. Howe clearly understands a lot of things. One thing is the fact that all of us have stories that we either love to tell, or at least feel compelled to share with the right kind of people.

In Chuck Howe’s case, his writing is so good, he gets to enjoy the notion that for him, “the right kind of people” is going to make up a considerably large audience.

If I Had Wings, These Windmills Would Be Dead has sentiment, sincere sentiment at that, but it’s hardly sentimental. It most definitely is not saccharine sentiment. Stories like “Battlefield Bedford” and “The Naked Chick” manage the impressive trick of becoming singular, complex storytellers. Yet all of them are clearly coming from the same writer. Howe has a literary voice that is all his own, and it lends itself well to rich pieces like “Reunion” and “Machete.” What’s fascinating, and ultimately, what provides the book with one of its most compelling strengths, is how well Howe’s narrative tone blends with these stories. His writing style is consistent, but it also adapts itself to the needs of each and every story. As you’re going to discover, some of the stories are certainly more heartbreaking than others.

Memories are often a complicated grab bag of images, good dreams, bad dreams, heroes, and cruel bastards. Writers make their trade in memories to a pretty substantial degree, but few write with the details and passion of Chuck Howe. As he takes us through drinking stories, love stories, childhood accounts, drug stories, and other tales of depth or just casual misadventure, the passion and the crucial, evocative details remain consistent. They take us through our own memories with ease, and they leave us wishing that we could wax on their essential particulars as well as he does.

To put it another way, everything in If I Had Wings, These Windmills Would Be Dead feels as though it’s happening in real time.