Expletive Deleted edited by Jen Jordan

Expletive Deleted

Edited by Jen Jordan

Published by Bleak House Books

375 pages, 2007






Well and Truly Fracked

Reviewed by Jim Winter


I won’t say that other word. You know the one. The queen mother of all swear words. The most versatile, yet most feared, word in the entire English language. Of all the seven words on George Carlin’s list, all but two have been said on television without reproach. Of that remaining pair, one is a variant of this one word, a word only once said on television without repercussions.

Oh, people try to get around it. The say “freaking” or “friggin’” or “fudge.” Battlestar Galactica flaunts the taboo, however, using the aforementioned “frack” as forcefully as this forbidden word, and with just as many variations. It’s as though that series’ writers are telling the Federal Communications Commission and the prudes of society to…


Well, to frack off, to put it not so mildly.

So we will say “frack” here, and speak of Expletive Deleted, author-editor Jennifer Jordan’s homage to this verbal pariah in all its glory. With 21 crime writers, Jordan explores the real-word version of “frack” in all its meanings, connotations and forms. There are stories here of those who fall into darkness fracking (Laura Lippman’s “A Good **** Spoiled” and Reed Farrell Coleman’s “Pearls”), those who can’t help fracking (Anthony Neil Smith’s “Find Me”), people fracking over other people (Libby Fischer Hellman’s “The Jade Elephant”), and people who are simply fracked (John Rickards’ “Twenty Dollar Future”) or just fracked in the head (Ray Banks’ “Money Shot”).

On the whole, Expletive Deleted is an uneven effort, though not through lack of risk-taking. The stories that didn’t work for me -- and there were very few of those -- at least showed an experimental bent. Whether they work or not is irrelevant. This volume’s opening salvo alone will hook a reader, leaving him or her wanting to know what happens next.

Or who fracks whom next, and how.

I was particularly impressed with Jordan’s choice to close this collection’s first section with Sarah Weinman’s “Lookout” and Kevin Wignall’s “The Preacher.” Both are exercises in whiplash point of view. Critic-blogger Weinman deftly head-hops from one character to the next, never in the same head twice, in a story about an ice-cream man, a missing girl and a priest. Only in the last scene is it revealed who’s fracked and how, in what turns out to be an urban horror story.

On the other hand, Wignall (Who Is Conrad Hirst?) plays ping-pong between Hector and Sydney, two knock-around guys who can’t seem to figure each other out. The back and forth between hot-headed Hector’s thoughts and those of Sydney, the old man, comes off as a sort of ping-pong game. Hector and Sydney are assigned to deliver a message for their boss, a mob figure. Hector is excited, thinking he’s finally going to get to kill someone. Sydney has other ideas about delivering a message. Think of Hector as a violent John Gotti type versus Sydney as someone who’d be at home in Don Corleone’s inner circle. Hector learns the hard way it’s just business.

The standout stories, though, are Smith’s “Find Me” and Ruth Jordan’s “Little Blue Pill.” In “Find Me,” New Orleans private eye Hopper can’t seem to avoid sex. He’s hired to find a missing girl after sleeping with a college girl, then sleeps with both the gone girl’s roommate and her mother. Even the girl’s boyfriend violently gets in on the act. (No pun intended.) Jordan’s “Little Blue Pill” tells the tale of a woman with a lethal appetite for murder and sex -- in that order -- ending with her gleefully joining a similarly inclined lover in the ultimate lovemaking.

“Oxycontin. Beyond pain. We’ll ride to the end of the world. I’ll take the pill, too. We’re in this together.”

What happens next is merely implied in the last paragraph, but is so bizarre it would defy description.

But if Smith and Ruth Jordan wrote the trippiest stories here, Rickards has certainly penned the most poignant selection. Expletive Deleted’s undeleted expletive does not appear in “Twenty Dollar Future,” but the word is there in its bleakest meaning. Rickards takes us on a horrifying trip through the worst parts of Africa as we witness young Abdi’s violent transformation into a boy soldier at the cost of his friends’ and family’s lives.

It is night when the ghosts come for Abdi. He stands, as he has taken to doing, on a low pile of rubble behind their house. From the top of the mound of stones he can see the stars above mirrored by the waves on the distant sea, as if the edge of town is the edge of the world and there is nothing beyond it but the void. He stands there when the ghosts come so he will not wake his sisters. So that if they do wake, they will not see him cry.

Jennifer Jordan saved the best for last, however, in Nathan Singer’s “The Killer Whispers and Prays … or, Like a Sledgehammer to the Rib Cage.” It is the story of a love triangle between two soldiers -- one male, one female -- and the woman they both loved back in the States. In Singer’s story, the word, the one we say “frack” in place of, is here in all its forms and meanings. J. and Frannie serve together in Iraq. J. is sent home early and is fracking Marie, Frannie’s lover and the mother of a baby they’re raising, while Frannie completes her tour And is Frannie ever fracked, fracked in the head and fracked by life when she returns home from the war. All she wants to do is raise a child with Marie. But Frannie can’t work because she’s dizzy and having visions. And Marie’s baby is talking to her in hallucinations, a schizophrenic spin on Stewie Griffin. All the while, a refrain keeps sounding in her head:

My head is a thousand pounds of gravel. I walk spiders on a leash. I cast a shadow at midnight in pitch black with screaming indigo across emerald eyes overflowing. I leave the quick wailing in my wake.

As I said, very few stories in this anthology didn’t work for me, though even the ones I wasn’t particularly fond of at least left me thinking. H.P. Tinker’s “Entanglement,” for example, was a stream-of-consciousness effort, hard to follow, but interesting to read, if only for its writing style.

Overall, this book is a license to take one feared and revered expletive, deleted only on the cover, and simply run with it. Some of the writers took the obvious course, while others went off in unexpected directions. Whatever the quality of an individual story, Expletive Deleted is never boring.

Well, what the f --- did you expect? | February 2008


Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s a regular contributor to Crimespree and an occasional contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler Magazine and Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Edged in Blue.