REVIEW: Minotaur and Other Stories by Salvatore Difalco

Salvatore Difalco is a much-published author from Toronto.  “The Teeth,” collected in his recent Minotaur and Other Stories, was first published in the Winter 2018 issue of Euphony Journal.

Minotaur and Other Stories is a slow read in the best possible way.  Yes, these are meditative, brooding stories (though there are a few page-turners mixed in), but that’s not what I mean.  I mean that Salvatore Difalco tends to pack his stories so densely with emotion that every time I reached an ending, I had to set the book down for a breather, or else the shadow of one story would color my reading of the next.  The atmospheres of “Poisoning Felix,” “Blue Monday,” or “Vértigo”—paranoia, exhaustion, feverish terror—are vividly cast. Some, like the brief and beguiling “Caballo,” harbor some strange loneliness that even now I can’t quite name.

There are a few reasons for this.  For one, Difalco’s conservation of detail can be maddeningly precise.  Stories like “Little Man,” which live and die for the big twist, are drawn out in a  slow drip-feed of information—and the twist comes, and everything we’ve learned falls into place, it hits hard.   Difalco can paint the hell out of a room, or a face, or a personality—but only when he wants to. Sometimes he knows when nothing is more than enough.

For another, Difalco is coy with catharsis: he resists conventional narrative logic as much as he can, meaning that many  stories don’t end so much as stop short.  A handful (“Vértigo,” “Enter Night”) seem to  loop back on themselves; others slide, slowly and then suddenly not, towards unresolved darkness.  

Take these two together and we have the ragged skeleton of the Minotaur.  Difalco uses these details carefully to build tension that he never quite resolves.   It’s not for everyone (it took me a while to get into that rhythm), and it doesn’t always work.  A handful of stories don’t go anywhere. A few of the shorter stories are too scattered to hit home, and occasionally Difalco deregulates his economy of detail, and slathers information onto a story that can’t quite support the weight.   Still, even when stories drag or strumble, Difalco still manages to build dense and overwhelming emotional atmospheres.

The real pleasure here, at least for me, is the dialogue.  Even when individual stories sag, Difalco paces his conversations beautifully.   The rhythm, the pleasantries, the profanities—somehow they feel right.  It’s a lucky break, then, that so many of these stories use dialogic passages to advance their plots.  Consider “Cranio,” about a man who’s afraid of how big his own head is:

“What do you want?” Ruggerio said.  He wasn’t in the mood for shenanigans.

“Dude,” said Iggy.  “Having a bad hair day?”

“What?  Bad hair?  What the fuck is it, Iggy?  Don’t have time for your shit.”

“Eight plus,” he said, nodding.

“What did you say?”

“Eight plus, bro.  We know. We know.”

“What is this?”

“Look,” said Iggy,  “We feel for you. The IT department, that is.  We commiserate? Now there’s a good word. I’ve heard you use it before.”

There’s so much happening here: the understatement of tension, the spread of rumor and the implication of I know something I shouldn’t and something you don’t  (one of Difalco’s favorite devices), Ruggerio’s sheer bewilderment, Iggy’s not-quite-playful hostility.  Not even a hundred words, but so much is coiled under its surface.

The eponymous “Minotaur” is perhaps the most Difalcoesque nightmare in the whole thing, as the protagonist—like almost all of Difalco’s leads, a harried sort of man, hard-nosed but inevitably surprisingly fragile—is buffeted from bus-stop to bus-stop by forces he can neither control nor explain, and slowly he is thrust into a role he neither wants nor understands.  At day’s end, once he has lost control of his own destiny, he weeps, and then “Minotaur” stops, right there, because Difalco knows that this moment, this awful moment of unanswered questions, will linger long enough in the reader’s mind.