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Red Light Run: Linked Stories


Red Light Run: Linked Stories

I am seeing and reading more collections of short stories this summer than I can recall in the past. It may be just me, and it probably is. Shorter fiction has an appeal in that there is less to remember between beginning and end in terms of plot and character, which is a blessing for those of us whose potential future years will number less than those of our past. However, novels provide an author with a wider canvas to present a broader world in which readers can get lost of their own volition.

Baird Harper meets the middle ground with RED LIGHT RUN, his debut collective novel, if you will (the subtitle is “Linked Stories”). Harper, who has become well known in a relatively brief period of time for his short fiction, brings his considerable writing skill set to this connective and kinetic work, the narrative of which bounces back and forth in time and across characters, even as it is anchored by place and event.

"RED LIGHT RUN is a relatively short excursion...but every scene along the way is memorable. It can be touching in one moment, tragic the next and chilling by degrees."

The place is Wicklow, Illinois, a small town sitting in the geographic and economic shadow of Chicago. The event is a horrific tragedy that took place a few years before, when a man named Hartley Nolan was convicted of running a red light as he was driving while intoxicated and killing a woman named Sonia Senn. The “present” of the book is the day of Hartley’s release from prison --- a day late --- but the stories focus not only on that present and the families of the two people most immediately involved in the incident, but also their pasts. It permits Harper to show how one incident can bring change across a spectrum of directions, even as he introduces us to a number of striking, unforgettable and very real characters.

It’s tough to pick a favorite for the best and worst of reasons. Glennis, Hartley’s wife, is perhaps the most complex. We meet her on the night before his release as she struggles with sobriety, but we primarily know her as an alcoholic whose extremely troubled teen years were a contributing factor to her behavior yet don’t entirely excuse her actions. Kate and Billy, Hartley’s long-divorced parents, find a way back from serial acts of betrayal and deceit to have a meeting of the minds at a pivotal point.

However, Raymond Bello is the most chilling character of all. It is Raymond who we meet in “Smalltime,” the story that opens the collection. He wears failure like a suit of clothes and has the stench of something off and evil about him from the first page. Harper drops revelatory bits and pieces about him and everyone else throughout the book, giving the reader just enough to fill in the blank or two that may be left at the end. The third person narrator is omnipresent but doesn’t know everything.

RED LIGHT RUN is a relatively short excursion --- just over 200 pages --- but every scene along the way is memorable. It can be touching in one moment, tragic the next and chilling by degrees. And while you may finish it relatively quickly, you will be compelled to hunt down Harper’s previous short fiction across a wide range of publications while you wait for his next work, in whatever form it takes.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 11, 2017

Red Light Run: Linked Stories
by Baird Harper

  • Publication Date: August 8, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501147358
  • ISBN-13: 9781501147357