There’s a scene in “The Kanasket Chicken Killings” that illuminates a great deal of what Brian Ames (’85 Political Science) is up to in his collection of short stories, Smoke Follows Beauty. As he’s replacing the camshaft of a road grader, mechanic Henri DeLaat, trying to make sense out of what’s been happening on his farm, reduces the confusing events he’s been living through to a mathematical formula: “A, there are chickens going missing. B, it is probably the work of coyotes. C, coyotes can be stopped. D, how? A plus B plus C equals D, a simple equation.” Immediately, he drops a bolt into a greasepan, bends over to retrieve it, cracks his head against the undercarraige of the grader, then sits down hard, stunned by the blow. Suddenly the answer comes to him: “D, kill them, kill them all.”
It’s as though the powers, whatever they may be, were telling him, “It’s not about intellect, dummy, it’s about blood.” Accepting his role as predator, Henri becomes part of the fabric of confusion and dissolution which, Ames seems to suggest, is the essence of reality.
In story after story, Ames’s characters confront that reality, often in the context of magical or otherwise unusual circumstances. In “A Taste Like Fear,” Dr. Mullenix, a “real” mathematician, complacently hunts big game in Africa. But his self-satisfaction—and his mathematical certainty about the world—are shattered forever when he encounters, half-buried at the edge of a watering hole on the savannah, the mutilated, ravaged body of what appears to be a Maasai woman—except for the wings growing out of her back. “. . . [W]hat kind of place is this?” Mullenix asks in bewilderment. “In what place can one of God’s own angelic beings be violated and murdered?”
Things don’t always turn out badly for Ames’s protagonists. In the book’s concluding story, “Something for Nothing, but Only Once,” an elk hunter sits at the edge of a clearing, waiting for game. Suddenly the charred end of a fallen log sprouts a face, and the face speaks to him: “There are no elk in this area. The elk are over at Glass Creek.” The hunter drives to the Glass Creek drainage, walks 40 yards into the woods, and voilà! a magnificent bull elk steps into the crosshairs of his rifle. After downing the elk, quartering it, and packing it to his pickup, the hunter meditates, “I know, as I hike out slick in the bull’s fluids, that it’s a one-time deal. You can get away with it once in a while.”
Smoke Follows Beauty is Ames’s first published book. Despite its flaws—chiefly the less-than-careful editing—it’s an impressive debut for this writer of talent and conviction, and it deserves to be widely read.