Matt Mullins is a writer, musician, experimental filmmaker and multimedia artist. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Ball State University (BSU) where he is a faculty fellow with BSU's Emerging Media Initiative.
''Though this is not a book of place, per se, there's a brooding, raw, rustbelt, jazzy, Motown energy that informs the sensibility and sound of this writer, fuels his prose, and gathers this collection into a compelling whole.''
"This book is lit from within, the pages dunked in the holy water of booze and kerosene, the kind of electrified prose that could only be written by a writer who spent the better part of his own life playing live music in the dive bars of the American Rustbelt."
“Three Ways of the Saw is a collection that delivers. One to the Gut. One to the Head. One to the Heart. This book knocked me out.”
It’s not hard to imagine the seamier side of life: it is, after all, shoved in our faces day after day in the papers, on cable news networks, and in late-night dramas aired at such an hour when all good children have supposedly gone to bed. Drugs, hookers, bikers, gangs — all seem to have their mysterious attraction as if we, the viewers, secretly wish to experience the thrill of it all without risking the danger of its very stark reality.
Growing up in the sixties in New York City, these realities were a daily part of everyday life, at least for some of us. Want to cop an ounce? Head to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village where you’ll either score what you came for or, more than likely, get ripped off. Sex and the city? In those days, the phrase referred to a lot more than just the name of a Hollywood movie. Peep shows, prostitutes and pimps ruled the streets off of 8th Avenue which was lined with hardcore bookstores and triple X theaters.
Fast forward to Los Angeles in the eighties and life became even grittier. Punk rock ruled. Bands with names like The Germs, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks rankled the airwaves with their music while films like The Decline of Western Civilization documented their often squalid lives. East Hollywood, in those days, was grungy and hip, another nod to middle class kids who wanted to experience the seedier side of life. Mosh pits were the rage, elimination dancing was hot and rowdy, and dark, smoke-filled nightclubs were the norm.
Perhaps the best book to capture the grit and grunge of the underground is William S. Burroughs 1959 classic Naked Lunch. This gut-wrenching book does more than just describe the sordid side of life. Unlike CSI: Miami and the like, it forces the reader to experience it almost first hand, so that, by the time you have finished with it, you have come as close as possible to the underworld of sex and drugs. In the end, you are left so sick and numb that it is as if you have directly encountered the reality-bend of hallucinatory life.
Three Ways of the Saw, by Matt Mullins, is, in some ways, similar though you will not come out of it with the same raw feeling that Burroughs leaves you with. The stories are often gritty and in-your-face, mustering up Midwestern street life in Detroit and its suburbs. There are the inevitable manifestations of sex, drugs and rock and roll and the not so inevitable Catholic school girls whose religious upbringing seems to push them to the opposite of what was intended by those good priests and nuns.
Yet, unlike Burroughs, these stories are page turners, creating tension in the reader which can only be mitigated by reading on. And, unlike Burroughs, there is redemption: characters whose lives have often been formed by a staid upbringing (Catholic school, solid middle class parents, etc.) who, unwillingly or not, fall between the cracks only to discover their own vulnerabilities and, in the end, are reduced to the common thread that binds us all: a humanity struggling with the reality of what it means to be alive in modern-day America.
There is guilt here as well — Catholic guilt stoked by Irish irascibility — a lot of soul-searching and, in the end, a confrontation with self which sometimes, but not always, leads to deliverance.
The book is divided into three sections, each containing longer stories as well as shorter, experimental pieces. Curiously, this format lends structure to a landscape of setting and character which often does not seem structured at all. And, like the Winnebago in “No Prints. No Negatives,” we meander through towns and deserts, through cemeteries and cities, through the lives of those who populate this landscape in a Travels with Charley-like journey that takes us through the wilderness and delivers us in tact back to our comfortable lives.
Readers will find Three Ways a bumpy ride, as it jolts them out of tranquility and takes them through the ups and downs of its characters’ lives. From the nameless guard in “The Way I See It,” who exhibits empathy towards a hooker while he comes to terms with his own guilt and failure, to Danny in “Dead Falls” who is forced to confront his sexuality and his self-doubt through a friendship that straddles staid suburban life and urban grit, readers will find themselves in unknown territory that smacks of familiarity: a familiarity that we are all, in the end, capable of the worst and the best that life has to offer.