Michael Carroll’s writing spine is as sturdy as mountains. It has to be to stride the tidal wave of ultra-conservatism currently holding this country underwater, seeking to erase fifty years of progress, conspiring to send us back to our caves. Stella Maris: and Other Key West Stories flips the bird at what has become a sterile, bloodless America. Sex (dirty, raunchy, unapologetic sex) jumps off every page of these tales. You smell its deliciousness the way you smell it the second your nose hits Key West. Stella Maris is sexual medicine for the infuriating return to Puritanism we are seeing these days. In brave, flavorful, no-bullshit prose, Carroll’s stories shock delightfully with their lack of concern for what you might think, which judgments you might make. We are presented with memorial services for a fallen drag queen (funny as all fuck), with two ladies sailing on a cruise ship battling betrayal, booze and bad weather. In my favorite story, two guys, recently divorced, decide to lick their wounds by licking every cock on the island in utter abandon, a joyous flashback for a lot of us of the pre-AIDS generation who remember the days when licentious desire had us sinking beneath waves of orgiastic extravagance. Carroll does not though let us forget the decimation of AIDS, the price paid, the lovely lives lost, the horror of an uncaring government to help. He makes us remember what so many young gays now do not, that we were sacrificial in our losses, that most of an entire world came this close to being wiped out.
Carroll, winner of the prestigious Sue Kaufman Prize for 2014’s Little Reef and Other Stories, has an owl’s ear for dialogue, and it is honest dialogue, uncontrived. You know or have known people who talk like this, or wish you did. Ditto the author’s skill with characterization. His characters are not cookie cutout fictions; they are recognizable, real. Again, you wish you could know them. Those you’d rather not are interesting just the same. They brim with legitimacy. They are self-aware, or are trying to be or, if they have lost hope in ever attaining self-awareness, make you ache with why. Some of them, the cruise ship dollies, for example, are a mess but they know it and in strange ways embrace it.
These stories are so important, coming as they do to make battle with an insensitive national and cultural devolution. Carroll’s dirty mind radiates a refreshing candor, a frankness. He says out loud what people are thinking, doing, or long to do. His stories are raw, rare, beautiful. They remind me of Capote at the height of his powers, or a gay Eve Babitz. In Stella Maris, Carroll swims way out past the buoys and comes back triumphant. With only two books under his belt, he is a burgeoning short story master and hero.
Stella Maris: and Other Key West Stories
by Michael Carroll
Turtle Point Press; 288 p.