Creamy Bullets by Kevin Sampsell, Chiasmus Press, www.chiasmuspress.com
“My penis had sabotaged my life” (248), so claims the narrator of the final story in Kevin Sampsell’s Creamy Bullets, and it’s a resonant bit of bitching. The title recycles a ‘80s euphemism for ejaculation, and there’s another penile implication, more subtle, in the three divisions set up for this assortment: “Small,” “Medium,” and “Large.” Throughout, unruly lusts define the fictions. In the smallest of the Small, 1000 words, promptings out of the groin are all our sole instruments for erecting (two can play at this game, Sampsell) a character.
Consider “Bubbles,” a superb Small, set in a stuck elevator. The narrator finds himself trapped with a woman who “hands him a big cube of purple gum, the kind that junior high school girls chew.” He blows a bubble, and:
She chews slowly, her lovely lips curling, her jaw moving in a smooth little dance. Her bubble comes out confidently, without fear. It grows bigger like a puff of smoke. She pauses for a moment and says, “Mine’s strawberry.” It’s bright red. She stares into my eyes. “What’s next?“ I ask her. “Bubble fight,” she says. We stand close… (10-11)
The sexual tension is undeniable, and the drama is in the shivery junior-high displacement of that tension. When Sampsell’s people hook up, they always shrug off some other urgency—something that could like a plummeting elevator do harm. To put it another way, in Creamy Bullets size doesn’t matter: at any length stories go dark and downbeat, despite the comedy and bubble-gum in their setup. When folks aren’t left weirdly frustrated, their orgasms tend towards catastrophe—exemplified best or most disturbingly by the anonymous man-on-man encounters in “The Layover,” the rawest of the Large (man-on-man, yes: Sampsell gets graphic but to his credit avoids the laddie-mag stuff). By and large, the gloom and priapism recall the Grim Reaper porn of Michel Houellebecq.
On the other hand, this fiction has nothing of Houellebecq’s encyclopedic worldliness. Quite the opposite, the ambience and range of reference make one think of Raymond Carver. Hookups tend to be scuffed-up and the mode of speech bubble-gum. Work is drudgery, days off never take us far (the strongest of the Medium, “The Mermaid,” depends on having to share a vacation place with the parents), and a number of storylines feature voices that come through cheap apartment walls. Altogether, Creamy Bullets presents a splatter-portrait of those who might be called Carver’s offspring: the contemporary 20-and-30-somethings laboring to accept their limited horizons and achieve a private grace. Only one story makes mention of professional ambition (the breakup fantasy “Cat in Residence”) and only one enters the political arena (“Songs for Water Buffalo,” a winner, with what might actually be a happy ending), in both the essential questions are things like how the characters dress for bed or how their dreadlocks smell.
As such a portrait, these selected shorts make their greatest contribution, full of feeling though scattershot. The best swatches of low realism even include two or three driven by impulses from above the beltline. “Don’t Eat Paper,” for instance, shines a brilliant pin-light on the secret communications between father and son. But Sampsell clearly doesn’t cotton to limits on his sensibility. He’s a tyro: a performer and editor-in-chief at Future Tense Press, he lists over thirty publication credits for this book alone. What’s more, depending on what you count, it’s his sixth or seventh book over the last 15 years. Anyone visiting literary websites like the Emerging Writers Network will find many a Sampsell reference, also mentioning his important work with Powell’s Books. All well and good—let a hundred flowers bloom—but the man’s latest fiction, as fiction, satisfies less when it trucks in fantasy and alternative narrative forms.
Granted, the small pieces can’t help coming across as alternative. But the most effective miniatures sketch a discernible plot against a recognizable drabness, and among the Large, the drop-off in affect when Sampsell eschews causal reality can’t be missed. The ever more depressed and distant couple, in “Cat in Residence,” generate far richer excitement than the talking cat.
Part of the problem is style. Unsophisticated Americanese like this is a perfectly viable aesthetic choice, and has been since a hundred years before Carver, but when an author seeks to experiment, control of rhetoric becomes paramount. Were I in Sampsell’s writing group, I’d risk losing his friendship by pointing out how careless he can be; he imagines well, then summarizes flatly. In six lines he’ll use “even” three times (151-152), and he’s likewise profligate with emphatic business like the “little” in the “smooth little dance” of the gum-chewer’s jaw (I mean, of course it’s little). It’s authors like this, after all, who profit most from a good editor. Chiasmus Press, while an admirable startup in many ways, has compounded the problem by letting several egregious errors slip through—gaffe like “no drinking aloud”  reflects badly on everyone.
To judge Creamy Bullets solely on such details, however, would be to miss the firing squad that’s blowing you away for the tarnish on one barrel. It would be to overlook the delights of a good dozen stories here, including at least a couple of each length. If I were to nominate a better fit for Sampsell’s forebear, it wouldn’t be the poet Carver but rather the meat-and-potatoes John O’Hara. Underappreciated these days, O’Hara was nonetheless a natural and still has the most published short stories ever in The New Yorker. Was he sloppy on details? To be sure—but he nearly always delivered a heartbreak, in circumstances unapologetically earthbound, haunted by economics and sex. Were I in Sampsell’s circle, I’d say, “Skip the cream, bite the bullet.”
John Domini’s (email@example.com) current novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. In 2009, he’ll publish a selection of his essays and reviews, The Sea-God’s Herb.