Peter Markus, We Make Mud, Dzanc Books, 2011

Reviewed by Derek Sillerud

[Review Guidelines]

Though billed as a collection of short stories, We Make Mud by Peter Markus is hard to categorize as such since it's more a collection of flash fiction/prose poetry from the same perspective about the same people in the same place. Told from the point of view of Jimmy, a young boy living in abject poverty and fascinated with mud and always accompanied by his brother, John, each vignette is its own vision floating interconnected with the rest. Moving in a circuitous fashion toward an ambiguous and violent end, there are moments of philosophy disguised by its simple, repeating prose.
     This idea of deeper meaning hiding behind the language can be seen in the collection's title story, "We Make Mud," in which the boys watch their father dig a hole and contemplate work. "[W]ork was back when our father used to have a work to go to, back when the black-metaled mill that now sits shipwrecked on the river's shore, so dark and silent, back when it wasn't so dark and silent, back when blast-furnace fire and smoking smokestack smoke used to make us brothers raise our eyes up to look up at the sky." Their father digs a hole and makes mud to build a home, and the children, with their childish ambition, set to work to make a girl from mud, a character who will appear many times throughout the stories as mud and person, someone who speaks and is silent, and who has a heart that the boys touch only to see it explode and turn into stars.
     "We Make Mud: Revisited", one of several stories revisited, finds the boys running through town smearing mud on everything. "When the town men and town women come up to us brothers to ask us what do we think we are doing, what us brothers do is, we cover up with mud their wide open mouths shut up." Outside of the mud, there is little to connect the two stories, tone and mood have shifted, and the reader is left to explore how mud has grown as a symbol and what it represents for the two boys.
     The boys take everything as it comes and apply their own logic in a circular and innocent way. Words, phrases, and whole chapters are revisited and repeated many times over like a jazz riff with lines like, "Man, this man, he gives us two brothers this look at us brothers like he is the man who made us brothers us," that force the reader to slow down and not just see the language as information, but hear it as rhythm. It would be easy to pound through each of the 53 stories of childish imagination, or simply read one and be done with it, but you would be missing out on the entire ensemble. Beneath the curtness and repetition, there is a great deal of mystery, and putting it together is part of the experience.
     In the end We Make Mud is a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces that resemble one another, but somehow come together through its themes to form a single picture. Each story could be taken separate and leave the reader with no fewer questions about life and death, but the collection's success comes from each piece contributing to the whole. And putting it together requires a slow, meditative hand that is not unlike a hike through the muddy riverbanks the boys inhabit, and patient readers will leave it considerably less dirty and more enlightened because of it.