The Blessings of Hard-Used Angels

Dec 20, 2004

This collection of short stories from an Alabama attorney portrays "society's underclass."

John Cottle?s debut volume of short stories comes with a very impressive endorsement.

These stories are the winning manuscript in the 2003 George Garrett Fiction Award competition held by the Texas Review Press and were chose by Garrett himself, a man of unimpeachable experience and taste.

John Cottle, the author, is a practising attorney in Eclectic, Alabama, and with this volume joins other Alabama attorneys such as Mike Stewart, Frank Turner Hollon, and Richard North Patterson as a successful fiction writer.

In fact, I think the best stories of the 13 collected here are the ones in which the speaker is a lawyer or the action takes place in that most intrinsically dramatic of settings, the courtroom.

Perhaps my favorite is ?Playing Bingo for Money.?

In this comic little story, set in Cottle?s fictional Bedford County, Alabama, the plaintiff?s lawyer represents one Aggie Bingo against the Holston Trucking Company.

There was an ?accident? and Ms. Bingo is claiming damages for back injuries. Bedford County is represented as a place in which the common folk might receive extravagant settlements against large corporations, especially considering the vagaries of the Alabama jury.

Bingo is awarded much more than she deserves, and her lawyer is pleased, but the last sound that echoes through the story, as Bingo?s attorney gets into his car to go home, is the siren of an ambulance, racing to the scene of an yet another accident.

The first line of another attorney story entitled ?Annie McGill? is ?I am not a man much affected by guilt.?

It?s a good thing, too, as the speaker is a successful lawyer who specializes in criminal defense.

Annie McGill has been raped and beaten. Malcomb Carsden, local spoiled rich boy, has been arrested for the crime, and is represented by our protagonist.

A clever courtroom operator, he gets Carsden off, but realizes from the look on the boy?s face at acquittal and from the icy stare of Annie McGill, what he has done.

Luckily, he is not a man affected by guilt.

Being a plaintiff?s attorney, as Cottle is, has brought him in contact with many of society?s underclass, the poor and the slow, and these are his most convincing characters.

In ?Nocturnal Birds,? a mildly retarded 30-year-old garage mechanic named Ronnie Arceneaux has forged a relationship, indeed a kind of love affair, with Mary Garmon, called Squirrel.

She cares for him, lives with him. She is, like Ronnie, pretty slow, but they appreciate each other all the same.

In one scene, she approaches the garage, bringing his lunch: ?[H]e did not see the thick flesh that hung from her arms or the coarseness in her skin or the chestnut flush of her teeth, but looked instead upon an approaching comfort?a hard-used angel bearing common blessings?and a smile came up under the grime on his face as she waded toward him through the clutter.?

Also successful in this volume is ?Slocomb?s Money,? a story of double-cross and triple-cross in a small Georgia town. This is a tale of theft, drugs, betrayal, and violence, and to say that there is no honor among thieves is just a beginning.

Many of Cottle?s best characters are violent, slow-witted, rather hopeless characters, but as their creator, he has a real compassion for them.

In the story, ?29 Years, 7 Months, and 18 Days,? Coot Skaggins is cruelly fired from his job at the textile mill after almost 30 years there because he insists on going to his only brother?s funeral in Mobile.

The story calls out for a Norma Rae, and sure enough a petition is drawn up, but in Cottle?s world, actions like that are doomed.

Most of these stories are pretty grim.

A gay man is refused burial in his church?s cemetery.

A father is estranged from his child for 15 years.

Yet they are realistic, not depressing, and as a first book of fiction, very impressive.