Some 40 odd years ago, Steve De Jarnatt put pen to paper and started to craft what would be his cinematic masterpiece and final film (so far), Miracle Mile. The 80s classic was spiked with romance, conspiracy, violence and ultimately the end of the world as we know it thanks to a fictional nuclear annihilation everyone lived in constant fear of during the Cold War. As the poster boasted, it was a welcome blast, a genre smashup that keeps an audience guessing until the final reel because it juggled so much with such expertise. Some have stated the film achieved cult status instead of Oscar gold because its lengthy trip from screenplay to screen ended at the same time the Berlin Wall was coming down; in 1989, everyone was in the midst of a deep exhale as the animosity between world powers was on the wane and perhaps few felt they needed the reminder of how close we’d all been living to oblivion.
Fast forward to now and you’ll discover De Jarnatt’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. He’s dropped his first set of short stories on the literary world, and they’re a stinging balm for this planet, thrown into tumult the way it hasn’t seen for a century. Grace For Grace (a phrase taken from a standout story involving a whale, Her Great Blue) shows the writer remains fascinated with the edge of chaos we as a species exist on at all times, and how we as clumsy, mean, beautiful, messy and loving people handle it. The randomness of the universe, the many apocalypses hiding around every corner, are on full display here—a detoxing soldier fights a hurricane, an earthquake interrupts a mob hit, and in what could be the most De Jarnatt moment in all of his work, a little girl gaily skips over the heads of a theater full of people who are about to burn in a theater fire. And that’s just scratching the surface of the beautiful chaos revealed herein. The writer throws us into the middle of these nightmares and dreamscapes with little warning about what’s going on and certainly what’s going to happen next; the scenarios slowly but surely reveal themselves and almost always hinge on what direction human nature will drag his protagonists in when faced with challenges created by decades of their own behavior or the random cruelty of the universe—or, more often than not, the combination of both.
The delightful news? Far from some Ligotti style depression fest over how empty our existence is, De Jarnatt’s globe trotting tales celebrate his characters and their faults, deformities and mistakes. He does indeed, time and again, find the grace in humanity. Through these stories he shows a complicated but pure love for his fellow men and women. We fight, lie, fuck and fail, but we get up and try to do a little better the next day, and maybe even rise to the occasion when things go south—and things always go south. Perhaps one of the best in the collection, Escharotomy, highlights this complicated dance, as a supposed victim of a terrible crime seeks out her supposed assailant, a man burned head to toe not once but twice, who now roams forests decimated by flame to help nurse the wounded survivors back to health. It encapsulates the chaos we cannot control, the damage we inflict on ourselves and others, and the complicated, almost unknowable process of healing and loving despite it all. De Jarnatt delivers these fables with lively prose, equally as comfortable weaving wild tales as he is taking chances with language. Characters and moments bolt off the page and come to life in the reader’s mind, almost as if a great filmmaker is orchestrating a series of loosely connected cinematic vignettes before our very eyes. I don’t know if he’ll get behind the camera again, but no matter what creative endeavor he launches next, it’ll be well worth looking out for. Grace for grace, deed by deed.