Book Review: Black no Sugar – 9 Short Stories, by A.W. Wilson
Posted on May 21, 2013
by A.W. Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Black no Sugar is a collection of nine short stories by A.W. Wilson, a self-published author, containing some bleak, pithy, funny, and well-crafted prose. I have read it slowly, one or two stories at a time, because (as promised) each story is like a dose of hot and bitter brew. In fact, that is just how I prefer my coffee, and it was the title, along with the hilarious image of a much-overused Munch painting on a Starbucks take-away cup (I’d thought I’d never see a fresh re-frame of that, but life is full of surprises) that made me decide to give the stories a try. I figured that anyone who could come up with that idea would be worth devoting some reading time to. Still, like espresso shots, you cannot down one after another, all in one sitting, and not expect your nerves to be shattered afterwards; so, I have proceeded with caution.
A.W. Wilson’s stories are refreshing in their intelligence, style, and wit. They are not filled with extraneous guff, screaming out for an editor who can spell and who has a grasp of English grammar. Clearly, they are not written by someone who has never read any good books himself, and Mr. Wilson’s admiration for Bradbury shines through. So, you are safe to open the cover, gentle readers, as these stories will neither make your eyes bleed from clawing at them in disbelief, nor your brain shut down, in order to protect itself against losing IQ points with every page turned.
Well, none of this will occur in response to the author’s writing style, anyway. The content may cause a variety of reactions, which are unpredictable. I recommend avoiding this collection if you are in the grip of a depressive episode or slogging your way through a dark, cold winter. This is a compliment to Mr. Wilson, as I found that some of his stories lingered with me in such a disturbing way that I was sorry I’d read them just before bedtime. In short, they pack a punch.
The first story, The Apocalypse Soup Kitchen is funny and, while bleak, it is bleak in a way that doesn’t clutch at your soul. The humour helps to deflect the devastation, in a story that might otherwise feel utterly devoid of hope, and the protagonist seems clever enough that we think he might just possibly-maybe find a way out of his desperate situation. Several of the stories which follow are like a river that is calm and quiet on the surface, but roiling dangerously in its depths.
At his best, Mr. Wilson gives us first-person accounts of protagonists facing immediate personal crises. They are people dealing with problems that feel, and sometimes are, insurmountable. These problems vary enormously in their threat to personal integrity and survival: one man struggles to cope with the hours-long, existential death grip of a corporate meeting; another is devastated when the attempted solution to his dilemma fails, tragically and irredeemably; another copes by focusing on just one thought at a time, enough to get him through the next moment of his life, in order to carry out the horrific duty that has been entrusted to him; and another quietly goes though the motions of his banal daily routine, to avoid contemplating the profound truth that he has been abandoned by all mankind.
The stories are linked in subtle, as well as more overt, ways; one of which is that the characters all focus on what they have to do, here and now, this very moment, to survive as a whole person, or a good person, or any kind of person at all (in some cases). In at least one of the stories, we get a happy ending, but that’s not really the point of A.W. Wilson’s writing. He is asking us to sit with him for a while, over a cup of our favourite acidic beverage, and ponder some of the most disturbing questions about being human, creatures who share the same drives as most other animals, while being blessed and cursed with self reflection.
Directly and indirectly, we are invited by the author to consider a whole slew of potentially distressing thoughts about ourselves and our relationships: Whom do you love? For whom would you kill, or die? Is your desire to survive so strong that there is no one you would not sacrifice in hopes of gaining another day for yourself? Are you sure about that? How much have you learnt about yourself through your mistakes? Or, like many or even most of us, do you just keep repeating them, the lessons eluding you for all practical purposes? Are there fates worse than death, personal Hells in which we wallow for eternity? Or, does death bring an end to us once and for all?
These themes are explored in a tone that is unmistakably British: acerbic, restrained, dryly humorous, stoic. If you miss the humour in this book, you miss everything, because it’s the only light shining in an otherwise long, dark night. My hope for A. W. Wilson’s future writing is that he might grace us with some elements of what is kind, good, and redemptive in the human spirit; that he might offer us his talents with a bit more warmth and heart, still balanced by the cold eye he casts on life, on death.