David S. Atkinson's writing appears or is forthcoming in [PANK], Grey Sparrow, Interrobang?!, Split Quarterly, Cannoli Pie, C4, InDigest, Atticus Review, The Zodiac Review, & others. He spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.
"Nothing is harder than capturing the ethos of a child, writing from a child's perspective, and bringing the reader into a child's world.”
"This book is extremely well written, with a narrative that makes you want to keep reading, even as each story raises your hackles just a little bit more.”
Bones Buried in Dirt is a collection of short stories that are linked together to form a novel. This is a literary format that can either go brilliantly, or it can go horribly, terribly wrong. David definitely has written a work that falls in the brilliant category.
The stories are all from Peter's point of view and follow him from around the age of four or five all the way to around twelve. In these stories, Peter goes through everything from neighborhood wars ("The War") to first crushes and girlfriends, with sexual experimentation along the way ("Training Part 1" and "Training Part 2").
I became so immersed in the stories that at times, I almost forgot that the author wasn't a kid, that these weren't being told straight from a child's mouth. David captures the way a child thinks, the way he acts, and the rationales he forms to explain things perfectly. In "The Virgin Mary Tree," Peter's friend Joy has run off into a potentially dangerous situation. Peter wants to stop her.
We were really going to get in trouble if something happened and we hadn't helped. My parents would have yelled at me and asked me why I had just let her go. Her parents, too. They'd have said she was our friend and we were supposed to have helped. Or maybe they wouldn't have said it. They'd have thought it though. They'd all have thought it when they looked at me. It wasn't fair. I didn't even know what was going on.
He isn't able to stop her.
I thought I could tell them all I tried. I thought maybe that was going to be good enough. I walked back to the hole in the fence. I might have even gotten in trouble for having been in the graveyard. I wasn't supposed to go there at all. I still went a lot, but my parents didn't know that. They'd have yelled if they found out I went in. Or maybe worse.
Peter's reaction reminded me so much of when kids do face situations that are outside of their normal contexts. They can't see exceptions to situations. Peter can't see that his parents probably would not have gotten angry with him for being in the graveyard in this situation, because he's never had a prior situation in which they wouldn't have become upset at his breaking a rule.
In another story, Peter's dad has to sit him down and talk to him because a neighbor was just arrested for molesting boys. Peter's dad wants to make sure that this hasn't happened to Peter, and Peter is more concerned that prior activities he and his friends engaged in will get him in trouble. The timing in this story is so tight. I could feel myself in both his and his father's skin, David caught both characters in such a perfect way.
“You can tell me, Peter,” my dad pleaded. “You have to know you can talk to me. If something like that happens, it isn't your fault”
“He never did anything! Honest!”
My dad took a deep breath and exhaled loud. “Good” he finally said.
I tried not to look at him, but he was looking at me. I just wanted him to stop. I already told him nothing happened. It made me keep thinking of training. My head wouldn't stop twitching, like I couldn't get my neck to sit right.
David does an amazing job with character descriptions. In just a few words, he sums up a character, and almost everything after that the character does or says, fits in with the original picture he gave of the character.
In his last story, "Cards," we meet a character named Danny, who is only in this one story. Yet, from the very first description of Danny, I knew him and all his further actions made sense and fit with the picture painted at the beginning.
Danny looked up a little. He sat on a swing like a big old slug. Not swinging really, just swaying around a little scuffing the dirt with his shoes. The dirt got his black sweat pants all dusty. He probably didn't care. He always had those dingy things on.
I enjoyed how the stories deepened from one into the next. I felt that it perfectly captured the evolution of what is important to us as we age. In the first story, Peter is upset over a balloon. In later stories, he's upset about way more intricate social relationships. And finally, in the last story, you begin to see the beginnings of an adult empathy to Peter.
There was very little I didn't adore about Bones Buried in the Dirt or David's writing. However, in a couple of the stories, Wooden Nicklepayback being the one sticking in my head, David ends the whole thing too abruptly. He does this in a lot of the stories, but in most of them it fits with a child narrating or with the story itself. But this type of ending doesn't work every time. Also, the only one adult to adult character interaction in the entire book, between Peter's dad and a neighborhood rival, PJ's dad, feels false. It's awkward, but not in the “we don't know each other but your kid's beating on my kid's” way, which might be what David was trying to achieve. It fails though and just feels awkward.
This was a fascinating book to read. I loved it, I loved how I remembered things from when I was a kid because of it, things I felt or said or did. I loved watching Peter grow up. Certain images that David painted in Bones Buried in the Dirt are still lingering with me days later.
One of the bonuses to reading this was David's providing me with the best 80s hairstyle description ever.
She had long, nasty brown hair that was all wavy and stuff. Her bangs rolled up in one of those dumb shredded wheat puff things, like she'd been messing with hairspray again.