BOOK REVIEW: Vanessa Blakeslee’s Train Shots

This debut collection is comprised of fast moving stories of considerable weight. Blakeslee keeps momentum and avoids over-explaining with strong scenes and concrete details that allow meanings to be inferred. Though the confidence of Blakeslee’s authorial voice is apparent, the approach and the relaxed inquiry is most admirable.

The work varies in style and tone but it is unified by themes of loss. In “Ask Jesus,” a husband searches his home for a missing Magic 8 Ball while contemplating the end of his marriage. In “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” an American expatriate hunts for a stolen canine in the barrios of San José de los Remates and reflects on her ex-husband living with a neurodegenerative disorder in Florida. “The Lung” depicts a man’s attempt to give up smoking after his girlfriend threatens to leave him. “Hospice of the Au Pair” follows Dr. Sam Parkinson as he overcomes drug abuse in the shadow of his wife’s death. Skillfully, and without being overtly didactic, this collection examines the loss of love, mobility, pride, independence, body parts and even life itself.

This is encompassed by the title story, “Train Shots,” in which a CSX train engineer named P.T. struggles to find meaning after his locomotive runs over and kills a young woman stretched out on the tracks. This is the third person P.T. has inadvertently killed in four months, and the young woman’s death comes just three days after P.T.’s break-up with his girlfriend Shelley. As P.T. recalls each accident, he questions the direction of his life and the existence of coincidence.

Like P.T., many of the protagonists in this book display an outward cynicism while remaining internally optimistic. These individuals actively seek the validation of hope. They search for reasons to believe their situation might improve. As this diverse cast of characters question themselves and the world around them, their queries are posed to the reader. “Who am I and what am I doing?” [86] “Is there any hope in saving my marriage?” [16] “What else is there to do but create a disturbance?” [102] “Why, this senseless thing?” [22] The text becomes a collaborative search for explanations as the author, communicating through a narrative filter, guides the reader into joint reflections on the randomness of loss and its ability to define and reshape a life. The reader is engaged as a passenger, peering attentively through their window at passing scenes as the author prompts them to look closely at the implications, purpose, identity and origin of what they see. This deeply satisfying work asks one to consider the tracks they follow and to imagine all that is taken away on journeys to devastating collisions or greater destinations.


Blakeslee, Vanessa, Train Shots, Burrow Press, 2014.

Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Metazen, The Adroit Journal, Numéro Cinq, Slag Glass City and Publishers Weekly. He received his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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