We Make Mud by Peter Markus (Dzanc Books, 2011)
As a dedicated (albeit obsessive) fan and supporter of Peter Markus's works of fiction, I was far too excited for his latest collection, We Make Mud. Though the release of the book was pushed back more times than I'd like to remember, the encasing package arriving on my doorstep was a wonderful late birthday present to myself from myself. Better than the reception, though, was the time spent reading it.
Here in Markus's third full-length short-story collection, there are new things and old things. That is, Markus sticks to his guns in the basic blueprinting of these stories – the brothers still fish fish, the mud still makes the world tick, and the looming notion of leaving the town behind is still present. The grotesque imagery still shines, too, with many, many heads being chopped off, hands being nailed with rust, bent-back nails, and mud is (of course) eaten. Just as importantly, the language is still mystifyingly simple and complex at the same time. The sentences and the titles are all poems in themselves. These stories, really, are some beautiful hybrid of all literary things short in length. They're just about mud.
Really what I want to stress is that, while the aesthetic and essential elements of Markus's past work are still thriving in this collection, some vitally important changes are brewing, too. Well, vitally important for die-hards like myself, but important to readers interested in embarking on this literary journey, as well. Here in We Make Mud, the brothers begin to branch out a bit. They begin to break out of their shells. More characters from town are introduced to us – a man with a guitar, a man with a boat, a man with fishing tips, another boy. The boys even head into town town, the big place with the big buildings up the river. They branch out intellectually, as well – utilizing some introspection to teach us readers a bit about themselves, about the town, about their family. They get brave, the brothers, in ways they never have before.
What makes this collection strongest, I think, is its various bouts of exploitation and indulgence of Markus's techniques and recurring imagery. More heads are cut off in this collection, by my count, than any other. The boys even head into town to viciously and maniacally nail everything to everything else. Everyone becomes a fish at some point, and usually this ends in heads being – you guessed it – cut off. But while these Markus-tropes are pushed to their limits, others are reversed. Girl takes the mud into her own hands and makes things. Girl nearly becomes real. The mud turns to dirt. The house catches fire. These changes are key here, and they begin to set this collection apart from the others in both content and beauty.
Now, I can feel myself getting a bit too worked up writing this review. I'll force myself to leave out a handful of things about this collection that might serve to dismantle the many surprises it hides. It's tough, but I'll manage. Let me say this, though: this collection serves as what could be a turning point for the brothers. Things happen. Real things. Things that warrant change for the future of our dear brothers, their father, their mother, and even Girl. These are things not to be missed.