Book Review: Bled White
Reviewed by Nicholas Dolern
A dark and gritty collection that engages with our darkest, most self-destructive impulses
The six stories of Brian McQuilkin’s Bled White are not for the faint of heart. There is no getting around it: this collection is DARK. Murder, abuse, self-harm, addiction—nothing is off limits. The stories are drenched in blood and sex. Understandably, this type of content is not for everyone, which McQuilkin acknowledges in the book’s Foreword, but the collection is not purely lurid detail. Readers who want to be immersed in gory and salacious material are going to find rewarding character moments waiting for them under the surface.
At their best, the stories examine the motivations and psychic traumas that both cause and result from the gritty substance of the characters’ lives. Lost children, deadbeat parents, lust, and maybe love form the basis of the characterizations. None can be said to cope with these issues well—but who among us does?
The characters are almost uniformly damaged, even self-destructive. My favorite title, the final one in the collection, focuses on a child protagonist navigating an ethical gray area while dealing with an abusive father and an emotionally detached mother. It’s an intriguing exploration of morality, family relationships, and the influence of one’s setting.
“His father’s open hand cracked across his face and knocked Shaun to the ground before he was even sure what had happened. A girl screamed. Sneakers, lots of sneakers, hard against the sidewalk. Far above him dangled a pair of worn white tennis shoes, laces tied together and thrown over the power wires. The view was blocked with the face of his father.”
The stories take place in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area, focusing primarily on working class individuals and families. Places such as seedy bars, a strip club, and a warehouse along the Delaware River provide specific locations. The Jersey Shore, the Pine Barrens, and the legend of the Jersey Devil all also make appearances.
Tonally, there is a mixture of types. One story takes a turn toward horror in a surprising but effective ending. Another employs science fiction when a man with crippling social anxiety builds a teleportation device, leading to a twist like something out of The Twilight Zone. The variety helps each story feel fresh. All, however, retain the type of dark grittiness described above.
And yes, there is plenty of grit. The imagery can be indulgent, overshadowing character development at times. Sexual encounters are described in full detail from the male perspective. One character seems to spring an erection on every other page, though this can’t be said to end well for him. Sometimes character dynamics are not fully developed, such as the opening selection, where little substance is given to the protagonists’ purported romantic relationship. Other times secondary characters lean toward caricature. There is real potential in each story, but one must occasionally dig for it.
“I hated Eileen St. Victoria. As much as I pretended that I did not, I still did. I hated her because I still loved her. It was while driving to Cuba’s that I thought about the shore again, Eileen and me speeding down Route 55 with the top and doors off the Landcruiser, on our way to Wildwood or Sea Isle, her hand down my shorts…”
Bled White has a good heart at its core. It is an evocation of a particular type of place and character, and it revels in its dark subject matter. Readers who are looking for heart, grit, and shocking moments will find much to appreciate here.
Genre: Short Story Collection / Dark Fiction
Print Length: 168 pages
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