A Journalist's Archive

Colorado Noir
John Dwaine McKenna
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Fiction is the most powerful weapon in a wordsmith’s arsenal. It allows a writer to worm their way into your mind by first engaging your emotions. Like magic, the gut- wrenching feelings zap the brain into reconsidering long-held ideas. And no one has mastered the art of “thought-provoking fiction” better than John Dwaine McKenna.
          I used the same phrase to describe McKenna’s “Whim-Wham Man,” reviewed in the September 2013 issue of the NFH. Sorry, but I just can’t think of a better way to describe his awesome writing.
           In “Colorado Noir,” a collection of 11 short stories, he captivates his audience with memorable characters and plots chuck-full of wit and irony. Then bam, it hits you! You’re suddenly pondering serious social issues: senseless crime, homelessness, elderly care, and mental illness. While many of us would never choose to read a factual book about these problems, McKenna’s mesmerizing writing won’t allow us to stop turning the pages.
          The book is subtitled: “Stories from the dark side,” with most of the action taking place in Colorado Springs. While I don’t expect Mayor Bach or the city council to give it a thumbs up, members of the Colorado Independent Press Association showed their appreciation of McKenna’s handiwork by giving “Colorado Noir” three different awards. All very much deserved.
           In a phone interview  McKenna said, “I’ve lived in Colorado Springs, by choice, since 1968, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” However, he finds it hard to ignore the problems the city experiences as it continues to expand.
          He begins the book with “The Aluminum Mistress,” luring us in with the  first paragraph. Here it is: “After they got to know her better, all the guys at the shop tried, but it was impossible to guess how long the old woman had been living on the streets - because she was stingy with personal information, wary, and tough as a feral cat.”
          Elaine, a feisty woman who rides a tricycle around the Springs collecting aluminum cans, persuades Little Davie and Santos, at the Southside Tire Company on Nevada Avenue, to save the shop’s soda cans for her. Then she rushes on to her next stop. “Gotta go. I ain’t got a silver spoon in my mouth ya know.” It’s a phrase she repeats often. And the irony of those words in connection with her demise will blow your mind!
          Next, “The Ghosts of Christmas Present” is a tale about Yazzie and Darrel Lee, who have “fallen on hard times.” Most of their problems can be blamed on their own vices. “They were both drinking men, prone to lapses of memory and blackouts, their livers hard and their brains pickled from years of hundred proof and cheap beer.” McKenna artfully incorporates the city’s policy against homeless camps into this story. So as we watch the men’s downward spiral, from living in a trailer court near Fountain Creek, to living under the stars, we know they’re doomed. Nevertheless, McKenna treats us to a zinger of an ending.
          “Mosby’s Retreat” turns our attention to elderly care. It’s about a gray tomcat who stealthy makes his home in the “Southwest Assisted Care Center.” The residents feed him, keep him out of sight, and get a kick out of putting one over on a nasty administrator who strictly enforces the home’s “No Pets Allowed” rule. I love this story because it illustrates how much comfort one little animal can bring to people who are basically forgotten by the rest of society.
          Since the military plays a significant role in our neighborhood, it’s not surprising to find it featured in three of McKenna’s stories. “The Rising,” is told by 89- year-old Lieutenant General (Ret.) Jeremiah Livingston Ross. He remembers flying “Gallopin’ Gertie” during WWII as if it were yesterday. He sees her in his dreams, closing in on him. Here McKenna ventures into the realm of science fiction. Or does he? This story certainly leaves you wondering.
          “The Retributionists,” is four intense pages covering the life and death struggle between Azziz and Meleki. Does it take place in Iraq or Afghanistan? It really doesn’t matter, since the same scenario occurred more times than we can count in both wars. And “The Prisoner of Jane Russell” proves what every warrior already knows; combat experiences will never be forgotten - even when you can no longer recognize your own children.
          Each and every story in “Colorado Noir” leaves a lasting impression, because the characters are so believable. I’m willing to bet that we’ve all encountered a slick used-car salesman like Jimmy-Dan Dee. You’ll find him featured in “The Emerald Pearl Witch,” and smile when his gets his comeuppance in “Damn Good for Him.”
          Hands-down, Jake McKern, in “A Mischief of Rats,” is the most loveable character. While he is not perfect, McKern tries his best to maintain law and order in the Springs. First featured in “The Whim-Wham Man,” we pick up his story on November 3, 1955, as he is going to buy a brand new Chevy Bel Air convertible. I think of him as a “Knight in Tarnished Armor,” who will forever be fighting his demons, but will never stop plugging away, trying to protect the innocent among us.
           The “big city” evils depicted in “Colorado Noir” are no worse than those that appear on the local news. Yet the everyday drone of crime and social problems often leaves us numb. Perhaps that’s why we need a masterful writer to excite our synapses, forcing us take a closer look at the world around us.
          So come on, “Buy Local!” Because McKenna’s books contain the freshest writing you’ll find on the market. And “Colorado Noir” has no expiration date. It will keep churning in your mind long after you’ve finished the book.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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