Scar Vegas and Other Stories

by Tom Paine

Published by Harcourt

215 pages, 2000

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Man of Many Voices

Reviewed by Charles Smyth


The 10 stories in Scar Vegas, Tom Paine's newly published collection, are all over the map -- literally. In the opener, a sailboat is being tossed about like a cork by a furious storm off the Bahamas in the North Atlantic. Later in the book, an Australian builder describes a hotel project in Bali for a crowd of engineers at a Rangoon bar. And, of course, the title story takes place in Las Vegas, where an ex-con's belief in his bad luck is shockingly confirmed.

Indeed, one of the collection's pleasures is the great differences among its stories. Not only do they travel around the globe, they also move up and down the social ladder. Paine seems as comfortable with lowlifes as he is with the upper classes. Moreover, he writes convincingly in the style of his characters, whether they're aimless 20-somethings bound for the Anarchist Convention in Portland, Oregon, or, as in this passage, an ex-con arriving in Las Vegas for his sister's wedding:

"The cowboys cracked my ribs but they are taped firm. I am now in Vegas after frying across the Texas panhandle in July top down because the top was broke up good when I was thrown through outside Amarillo my first real stop after Galveston.... I do not like the sky night or day and keep my eyes on the yellow lines heading under the car when I am moving on. A pretty girl throws me the finger as I roll down the Strip. It's soft asphalt hot in Vegas."

Writing like that is no mean accomplishment for an author with double-Ivy academic credentials (Princeton and Columbia).

After Princeton, where he "majored in beer and rugby," Paine spent three years working at night in a psychiatric hospital and found himself among a community of writers, artists, and musicians who, like him, needed money and wanted to help people. During this time, he wrote many short stories, submitted them to a wide range of publications, and received enough rejection slips to cover the doors of his apartment. But he kept writing and took a job as editor of a biweekly newspaper on St. John in the Virgin Islands (which became the setting of a story in this collection). From there he moved to Italy, where he abandoned writing and took up sculpting. After a year, low on funds, he returned to the United States, settling in Vermont, and began writing again. Before long, he sold a story to The New Yorker, his first sale. Titled "Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?" it's the opening story in Scar Vegas. Paine still lives in Vermont and teaches creative writing at Middlebury College.

If there is a unifying theme running through these stories, it's the struggle between individuals and the powerful organizational forces that seek to control or oppress them. In "Unapproved Minutes of the Carthage, Vermont, Zoning Board of Adjustments," for example, the owners of a 50,000-watt radio tower vehemently deny any responsibility for the strange and health-threatening consequences of so much electrical power on the residents of nearby communities. And, in "The Battle of Khafji," a bus driver, pressed into American military service during the gulf war, risks his life to save an Iraqi woman from land mines, only to be court-martialed by his commanding officer for disobeying a direct order.

Preferring action and explosive narrative to stories "driven by a minute epiphany," Paine told a Vermont newspaper his writing is guided by the theory "if you bore yourself, you bore the reader." Using carefully chosen, unadorned prose, he writes in a direct, forceful style reminiscent of Hemingway's. With both writers, simplicity of expression paves the way for powerful content. And Paine knows how to get your attention: "The general's panties were too tight," begins "General Markman's Last Stand," a standout story in the collection. If ever an opening sentence could hook a reader, this is it. | March 2000


Charles Smyth is a contributing editor of January Magazine.