In Golds’s hard-hitting collection of noir-influenced poetry and prose, Love Like Bleeding Out With An Empty Gun In Your Hand, there’s a lot of past, not much present, and even less future. Characters look back and see what’s better left behind; they look around and don’t like what they see; and they look ahead but don’t see much of anything. Yet somehow, Golds manages to be both a romantic and a nihilist at the same time—and that’s as good as definition of noir as I can think of.
Past. A man half-assedly looks for a job to preserve a marriage he knows is doomed (“Two Goldfish”); a dying man spends his last moments thinking of a woman he kicked to the curb and who replaced him in less than a week (“Love Like Bleeding Out with an Empty Gun In Your Hand”); and a trip down memory lane with Eddie reminds someone just how murderously annoying he always was (“A Contrarian Conversation in Hell's Kitchen”). These are just a few of the characters who may only exist for a few pages, but between the lines they live a lifetime.
Present. “The dream, my only dream is not to have a nightmare,” reveals the protagonist of “Two Goldfish.” This one line encapsulates the worldview of so many of Golds’s characters: an ambition of oblivion. They don’t aspire to greatness so much as to alleviate them of the weight of the eternal present moment. As the narrator describes at the start of “Like a Starving Rodent,” “That boiling, tumorous feeling in your guts, it never goes away. It doesn’t fade. It doesn’t soften. It never lets up. Like a starving rodent, it’s always there, gnawing away at your insides with black, rotten incisors.” Whether it’s escaping the mundanity of everyday life, or the loss of a loved one, Golds’s characters would rather be anywhere but here. “Ghoul. Ghost. Every day felt as though I was existing in the reality between being awake and being asleep” (“Blood and Cherry Blossoms”).
Future. Golds’s characters don’t have much to look forward to. The old ones—the wise ones—realize that. Like the aging has-been gangster in “Hereafter” who relives his glorious youth by signing his own death wish, rushing head-first into a disaster that will most likely kill him. He’s fine with that. He knows, like Sisyphus, that his future is just more of the present. The young ones, on the other hand, lack such foresight. Like the narrator in “On Being Fourteen Years Old and Loving Miss Perkins,” a student who fantasizes about a teacher from his school who is rumored to be in a relationship with a teacher he loathes, Mr. Perkins. Perkins becomes, in the narrator’s mind, a romantic rival. Eschewing standard dramatic structure, Golds avoids any conflict, choosing to have the teachers quit school and get married. “Mr. Berkins had won after all,” concludes the narrator. Though they are separated by decades in age, the protagonists of both of these stories share the same future: un-ending emptiness. As he says in the poem “A Cold Sunday,” “I wait for the sound of a bell / to mark the end of the round / but it never comes / there’s only the night / and the old / and / this waiting. / on the ropes always.” Golds’s nihilism spares nobody.
But, in the midst of all this darkness. there are moments of respite, like in “Table”: “Everything was changing so fast it seemed sometimes, but the table was still the same at least.” An anchor in a raging storm. Or the hanging final paragraph of ““A Contrarian Conversation in Hell's Kitchen,” consisting of just one solitary word—“Relaxing”—like the last gasp of a Bukowski poem, a rare moment of calm in a chaotic world. Or, more poignantly, like in “Broken,” in which a man getting his teeth drilled reflects on his recent divorce and job loss. I normally refrain from spoilers, but after so much pain and misery this ending gleamed like a rare jewel of hope: “Today was Friday and he’d get to have the kids for the weekend. That was something good that he still held onto. Something that was unbroken.” Even that light doesn’t last for long—the very next story, “Like Those Old Western Movies,” begins with “Darkness…Pain…”—and it only gets grimmer from there.
Unapologetically bleak, there’s also an undeniable beauty to Golds’s words. The inclusion of both prose and poetry is fitting because poetry informs so much of Golds’s prose style. From the names of stories (like the titular tale), to his vivid descriptions, to his lyrical dialog, and even structure of his paragraphs, Gold imbues his writing with the brevity and depth of poetry. The poems at the end of the collection are, perhaps, my favorite part of the collection.
Love Like Bleeding Out With An Empty Gun In Your Hand was my first book by Stephen J. Golds—and it certainly won’t be my last.
Out April 30, 2021 from Close to the Bone Publishing.