Seven Deadly Pleasures
Trade Paper, 250 pages, $15.00
Review by Sheila Merritt
Accountability and guilt fuel the stories in Michael Aronovitz’s Seven Deadly Pleasures. The collection is a compendium of culpability; a supernatural survey of dubious decisions and their emotional fall out. Adroitly mixing the spectral with the commonplace, the author displays an ear for the eerie: The dialogue is sharp and sound. His integration of the mundane with the uncanny is seamless. The six short stories and one novella which comprise this volume are fine examples of how to successfully combine the prosaic with the preternatural.
The book opens with a wallop of a ghost story: “How Bria Died.” A teacher, who prides himself on his ability to motivate his students, is given a comeuppance. Ben Marcus is cocky and complacent about his less than conventional ways of reaching his pupils. While performing as a substitute teacher, he revels in his ability to mesmerize: “It was more than strict attention. It was a submission that was almost divine in nature. They were lambs. There was an incredible cross-current of fear and trust.” Employing a local legend to gain the class’ attention, Marcus gets a potent lesson about using the dead as a means to obtain and sustain control. The instructor learns that invoking the otherworldly for personal reasons isn’t very smart.
The treasure of Seven Deadly Pleasures is its novella: “Toll Booth.” Adolescent rites of passage can be exhilarating and painful; sometimes simultaneously. In this, the last work in the volume, Aronovitz scrutinizes the thrills and terrors inherent in those tender years. Anxiety; peer pressure; the need for social identity; all conspire to consume a young man. Escalation from camaraderie to complicity turns lethal, and the protagonist’s life is forever altered. His coercion to try his first cigarette is expertly described: “Sharp, it hit the back of my throat and rolled into me like a chocolate cloud. It was potent and rich. Forbidden. I blew it out and watched the grey smoke make art on the air, a mushroom cloud spreading to the gauzy, three-figured hand of a beckoning witch, to thinning curlicues, drifts, trails. My head spun a bit in a friendly sort of way, and I knew I could handle this. I was older now. Better. I spit my gum out and took another deep drag.”
Later, the youth is embroiled in concealing a deadly car accident. While trying to dispose of evidence, he must confront the corpse in the shattered vehicle: “It felt like wet webbing over caved seashell plating. I felt it mold and contour, and a burst of liquid smeared between my lips. It was a woman’s face wedged between me and the wheel. My first kiss in the dark.”
Michael Aronovitz is a wise writer. He carefully builds a character’s vulnerability; then he subsequently uses it as a propellant for the action. Flawed individuals who act from ego (large or small), or who are driven by image, make some horrible decisions. These result in horrific consequences; rife with ramifications.
The Seven Deadly Pleasures doesn’t only target the jugular with its indelible images; it artfully aims at the Achilles’ heel, as well.