Despite its unwieldy title, Scar Vegas well introduces Tom Paine, a writer of range and imagination, who lives up to being listed among an elite group of "Writers on the Verge" last year by the Voice Literary Supplement.
This story collection travels the world, bringing us many different points of view; if literature had an equivalent of the musical genre "World Beat," this would be it. Paine has a common sense view of politics, speaking on behalf of some of history's losers, acting as an authorial Amnesty International.
The book begins with "Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?" a tragic and compelling story of lost salvation, a post-colonial boat-person scenario that illustrates so many aspects of injustice, but in a beautifully subtle way. Though a bit of a heart-string tugger, this story proves wrong those critics who have accused Paine of being heavy-handed.
"General Markman's Last Stand" is a story in which Paine is able to smoothly tie in a number of social issues, in this case violence, the war of the sexes, gender and aging. Paine treats a military cross-dresser with humor and dignity, and exposes hypocrisy while still entertaining with terrific character studies and some plot twists not able to be predicted from such a beginning.
So often fictional political diatribes are humorless. Not so, "Unapproved Minutes of the Carthage, Vermont, Zoning Board of Adjustment," a hilariously dry farce with environmental concerns. Though its viewpoint seems derived from a writing workshop exercise, Paine completely succeeds.
The teenage neo-hippie narrator of "The Spoon Children," with his wonderful reporter style, reels off this classic line: "Nobody is really clear on when the Anarchist Convention is going to start, and the definite vibe is it's not cool to ask, as anarchists are pretty much against setting a serious date and time."
"A Predictable Nightmare on the Eve of the Stock Market Breaking 6,000" is the humorously sad tale of Melanie Applebee, a horrid person turned two-dimensional by a Kafkaesque society -- a little ham-fisted, but weird enough to keep the reader's interest.
"The Battle of Khafji" is powerful and imaginative, as if Tim O'Brien were writing about the Gulf War rather than Vietnam.
Some of the material is a little forced, but the book, overall, is well-written and Paine has many good things to say; alas, it is not transcendent. Still, Paine is certainly a Writer on the Verge.