With so many books to get through for various projects and paid journalism, I haven’t been doing much reading for pleasure lately and, what little I have done, hasn’t been very focused. So short story anthologies are the ideal format. Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen is the best of the current crop I’ve read.
I was sold on this book the very first time I heard about it. As an enormous fan of Springsteen and crime fiction, in some respects it wasn’t a very hard sell. That didn’t mean it would necessarily be any good.
The idea is pretty straightforward. Forty one mainly American writers, established and up and coming, were assigned a Springsteen song and told to write a short story inspired by it. If you know anything about Springsteen’s music, you’ll already have a fairly good idea about what a lot of the stories are about: losers, dreamers, men and women whose disappointment with the reality of the American dream runs deep and angry. A lot of the action takes place in greasy spoon diners, farms and crime infested housing projects, and on deserted rural roads. Most of the factories have closed down, farmers are struggling, and most of the characters don’t have a lot of fuel left in the tank and even less hope.
The majority of the stories are good, more than a few are stand out. The interesting thing I found was how often the stories I liked were also the Springsteen songs I most enjoy.
My pick of the best stories is as follows:
Dennis Lehane’s ‘State Trooper’ is pretty much a re-telling of the song, but it’s Lehane, so the writing is top notch and even though we can guess the ending, it still packs a punch. ‘Prove it all Night’ by Jordan Harper, about a women looking back on the criminal exploits of her youth, was also a winner.
‘Candy’s Room’ by Chris Leek was one of the few stories by a non-US writer and one of the shortest but was two and a half pages of prose like spun gold.
I have never been a fan of Springsteen’s Born In the US album but Hilary Davidson’s ‘Hungry Heart’ is a terrific piece of fiction and salient lesson on why you should always treat your family well. ‘Dancing in the Dark’, another Born In the USA song, was turned into a wonderfully amusing tale of marital infidelity by Lynne Barrett.
‘Highway Patrolman’ by Ryan Sales was a terrific tale of revenge. Matthew Louis’s ‘My Hometown’ was a great alternative spin on the well-worn trope of the run down town and the ageing, embittered losers who inhabit it.
‘It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City’ is one of my all time favourite Springsteen songs. It was also a great story by New Jersey writer, Jen Conley, about youthful regrets and lost love.
Last but not least, Benoit Lelievre’s ‘Atlantic City’, about a young couple who kill and get a taste for it, was one of the most bent stories in the collection and one of the best.
The anthology also includes a great collection of black and white photographs by Mark Krajnak.
This is definitely an anthology worth checking out.