Did Edgar Allen Poe fake his death? That’s what a Baltimore doctor needs to figure out in the title tale for this 11th story collection by Jack Matthews. As one critic wrote, “Matthews stories are like friends from small towns: They are honest, warm, occasionally lyrical and as strange and idiosyncratic as the rest of us.”
Characters face all kinds of improbable situations in this collection. A US army battalion finds itself locked in an absurd stalemate with German troops at the end of World War Two. A second-string college football player inexplicably receives an athletic prize. A middle-aged man discovers that random women around his neighborhood are walking around nude. A man witnesses a car falling out of the sky into a supermarket parking lot. A book collector and his wife concoct a mad plan to outbid a mysterious competitor for a 17th century manuscript.
In the novella-sized title story, Edgar Allen Poe’s doctor investigates the mystery of Poe’s disappearance from his deathbed and the very real possibility that Poe (or someone purporting to be him) has fled to Louisiana and been sending enigmatic clues. As author of several novels set in 19th century America (Gambler’s Nephew, Sassafras and Soldier Boys), Jack Matthews (1925-2013) writes about early America with gusto and insight.
In contrast to previous story collections (which lean more to the cerebral or poetic), the Matthews stories collected here are down-to-earth yarns: gently satirical and reminiscent of John Cheever’s fiction. Most are like pleasant strolls through Midwestern neighborhoods, glimpsing random people at backyard parties, cafes and parking lots.
D. Donovan, Sr. Reviewer, Midwest Book Review (Jan 2022):
SECOND DEATH OF E.A. POE AND OTHER STORIES is a fun gathering of odd and insightful inspections. It opens with "Trophy for an Earnest Boy," which tells of a college sophomore football player who harbors a "wildness of spirit" and dreams about his future success.
Only a nineteen-year-old could take a game that is a miserable experience for a "...gullible, earnest nineteen year old boy who went out on a soggy field and struggled in the icy mud for two exasperating hours" and turn it into a lesson on winning, losing, and an ethical dilemma over a trophy's assignment.
Contrast this with "Indispensable Ghosts," in which a collector of 16th century devotional literature considers a fellow collector who is "...grimly possessed, frying like a rasher of bacon in a chrism of bibliophilic madness."
Everyone needs someone or something to push against, as the narrator's wife observes: "...some people need that sort of tension, don't they?" "What sort?" "Somebody to push against. To feel their presence against." Waldo Kiefer serves that function in this story, which juxtaposes literary collectors of devotional material in a competition which erupts into a professional war between competing bibliophiles, where more is at stake than ownership.
Readers of these literary examinations will find Jack Matthews cultivates a diverse set of scenarios, voices, and experiences that especially stand out with metaphorical representations.
His language is bright, original, and refreshingly startling. This is one reason why each short story is a standout—that, and his attention to capturing different details in disparate lives and experiences.
Each story is refreshingly unique. Each captures the nuances of choices which often embrace betrayal, loyalty, and passion.
Literary readers seeking a collection that embeds whimsy and fun into its life inspections will find SECOND DEATH OF E.A. POE is filled with unexpected moments and revelations that shine.