Left Hand (stories)

Seismicity Editions
Otis College of Art & Design
Los Angeles, California
191 pages, paperback
Book Design and typesetting by Guy Bennett

Left Hand was a 2004 finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in fiction.

Available through Small Press Distribution, Amazon.com, Alibris

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The Corresponder
Reviewed by Brian Baumgart

“What Ken McCullough manages to do with his first collection of short stories is to remove all expectations. The range of the stories in Left Hand is expansive, moving from a darkly comic tale of awkward criminals to a memoir-ish baseball tale to character sketches to an anecdote about the sexual exploits of Benjamin Franklin (yes, the Benjamin Franklin). Amidst the variety of styles and topics and lengths is one consistency: The writer obviously loves these stories and the characters that inhabit them.

This writer, McCullough, is an accomplished poet with a tendency toward Native American themes and an obsession with the natural world—leaning on a heavy spiritual bent in much of his writing. In addition to several books of poetry (Walking Backwards as his most recent), the award-winning poet worked with U Sam Oeur on the latter’s memoir, Crossing Three Wildernesses (currently a 2006 Minnesota Book Award Finalist). McCullough lives in Winona, Minnesota.

The first “story” in this collection, “Buffalo Nation” retains ties to previous works of McCullough’s. The connection to Native American culture stands at the forefront of this paragraph-long piece, while the author’s poetic music and rhythm pulse beneath the surface in sentences that ask us to pay close attention and at the same time simply listen: “Just then, from the north, a herd of buffalo moved steadily across the sky and D and I looked at each other and roared…” But it’s the movement between the stories in this collection that makes the work as a whole so dynamic. After the contemplative “Buffalo Nation,” McCullough sends his readers into a world of gambling, gangsters, and getaway cars in “Heist,” a tale of small-time hoods planning a robbery. Here, it’s the narrator’s voice that carries the story with catchy, fiery sentences—even if the voice does, at times, go a little over the top.

And this is the way the collection works: we’re given a world and a language for that world, and then we are pulled away, given a whole new language and a whole new experience. Though some of these stories may falter in various ways, what McCullough has done here must be applauded. His grip on discovering the right style and right voice for each piece is immaculate. From the grotesque prose poem visions in “How I Got My Summer Vaccinations” to the touching intonations and unsentimental language of “Father’s Day, 1990” (“The calf’s breathing is shallow, and there is milky slobber hanging from its muzzle,”) this author manages to come to terms with what is at the heart of these stories. Sometimes it’s to be expected (how could Ben Franklin’s sex life be told without abounding humor?), but sometimes he takes us on an unpredictable trip (as in the sobering “Heirloom”).

This debut work of fiction is a stellar achievement from an exceptional poet, offering an array of styles and visions not often seen in a single collection by a lone author. Left Hand is smart and sharp and an experience to read.”

Painting by Lisa Nankivil for "Obsidian Point" Book Cover

Photos of painting, books and other works by Kathy Greden

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