Down Along the Piney by John Mort

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John Mort, one of America’s premier storytellers, served in the Vietnam War with the First Cavalry Division. His story, “Hog Whisperer,” received the 2013 Spur Award for best short story from the Western Writers of America.  Mort writes edge-of the seat fictional masterpieces, presenting characters for us to root for and cherish, as well as the other kind. They are all-American people who breathe on the page—people we wish we knew, people we do know, or people we are happy we have yet to encounter.

Mort’s latest collection, Down Along the Piney: Ozark Stories (University of Notre Dame Press, 186 pp., $50, hardcover; $20, paper) contains thirteen fine stories, including “Hog Whisperer.” Some of these tales are so lively and dense that it’s difficult to believe they aren’t novels as so much happens in the course of each story. “Hog Whisperer” is one of those stellar stories.

Another one that is rich and full of the intent and accomplishment of a novel is “Pitchblende,” the first in the collection. We are introduced by the narrator to his father, known as “the Colonel,” in the first paragraph. He is a larger-than-life character who intends to run the lives of his entire family. His wife is not up for that, so she departs.

The Colonel was gone during most of that family’s life, serving in various wars around the planet. He disgraced himself—or thought he did—in the Korean War, after which his career was as good as over due to events that were beyond his control. That is often the nature of war. No more promotions were there, so the old man left the military and spent the rest of his life trying to strike it rich finding uranium in the form of pitchblende.

He dug big holes in the ground with his Cat, which was as close to his old Sherman tank as he could get on his property, which becomes known as Bald Mountain because of what he and his Cat do to the surface of the land and to the trees.

My favorite sentence in this story is: “That’s because they ain’t no uranium in Missouri.” Just sticky, old soft coal that’s worthless.

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John Mort

The story’s hero graduated from high school, joined the Army, and learned to fly helicopters.

“I was a warrant officer,” he says. “I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and I was never touched.”

There’s lots of war in the stories in this fine book, including the Vietnam War. “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” alone is worth the price of admission.

If you have even the vaguest love of fine short stories or want to read great stories about people and war, buy this book. It will not disappoint.

—David Willson