Some stories are meant to be recited by lofty academics, celebrated and lauded by philosophers and critics across the globe—and some are meant to make you do a double-take between sips of your cheap morning coffee. Sam Slaughter’s award-winning chapbook When You Cross That Line certainly falls into the second category, and his collection of five frank, bizarre tales stays with you long after that last gritty slurp you choked down before running out the door.
The collection draws inspiration from the Internet-famous “Florida Man” stories, in which people post ridiculous news headlines that really can’t happen anywhere else on earth. Slaughter captures this unique personality of the Sunshine State that people are so entertained by through his sparse, straightforward prose, and each piece seems to exude the distinct smells of sweat, humidity, sun-cracked earth and, of course, alligators.
The eponymous first story of Slaughter’s chapbook, “When You Cross That Line,” is a strong opening piece that sets the tone for the rest of the ride—genuine, gritty, unexpected, and somewhat ominous. What begins as a reluctant pit stop for a young man just moving to Florida quickly turns to a life-or-death situation involving illegal alligators and a seedy salesman, and the decent into fear slowly coils around the reader like a snake despite the brevity of his writing. The chapbook was named after this story for a reason, as it is without a doubt my favorite among the collection. It also contains my favorite line and what may possibly be one of the best descriptions of a person ever:
“He was old and the color of a burnt waffle.”
Even with my deep and profound love of breakfast, I had never thought to imagine it in a way such as this. That is just one example of what I believe to be Slaughter’s greatest strength in When You Cross That Line: the wry, original descriptions that are as blunt and honest as his motley crew of characters and settings. The apartment complex in “The Neighborhood Watch” “could’ve been where O’Connor’s Misfit lived,” and the giant, well-meaning friend in “The Bear in the Trunk” has an equally large “dump scoop of a hand,” just to name a few more lines that made me chuckle.
With that being said, I do wish that this descriptive style remained constant throughout each story—while the lengthier pieces in the collection were full of it, the shorter ones seemed a bit bare in comparison. Of course, not every story must have a funny or particularly observant narrator. “She’ll Never Hurt Me Again” and “A Soldier Fights for Freedom” are written in third person, and both harken back to the collection’s newspaper article roots in their frankness.
The remaining three pieces are where Slaughter’s effortless wit and dry humor shine through the strange, somewhat broken and unpolished world of Florida his characters live in. Before I read When You Cross That Line, I had a view of Florida similar to the protagonist’s friends in the titular first story:
“Think of the beaches, my new boss Trevor had said over Skype. Think of the babes. I’d been hired to write copy for a surf company. Think of the shark attacks, my roommate had said. Think of the old people.”
While I may not have been inspired to take a self-discovery-esque road trip after my expectations of Florida were shattered, the bizarre and entertaining journey Slaughter’s characters took me on was arguably more exciting than any I may hope to experience in this lifetime.