A review of The Museum of Heartache by Paul Luikart

Reviewed by Amy Walsh

The Museum of Heartache
by Paul Luikart
Pski’s Porch Publishing
August 25, 2021, Paperback, 165pp, ISBN: 978-1948920278

Paul Luikart’s collection of short stories has much variety as far as length, characterization, and setting:  Some stories are shorter than one page, while others are multiple pages in length.   We see characters of all ages and abilities in settings all around the world.  However, one thing that each story has in common is hopelessness, depravity, and pain.

Luikart’s short stories are like glimpses of reality television episodes of the down-and-out and downtrodden.  Each excerpt gives the reader a video clip in the mind, briefly immersing in the stories of bad parents, drug addicts, prostitutes, the suicidal, the desperately lonely, the neglected, the abandoned, the mentally ill, the grieving, and many more lost and despondent types.   His writing puts one right into the desperate situations and into the brains of his characters.

Though Luikart’s topics are dark, his writing is often brilliant, especially his descriptions. His descriptions are on point – sometimes harsh and sometimes poetic:

The sun is really going down now, and those long, pink rays are stretching out over the whole desert.  I ain’t seen it like that for years.  Longer and longer by the second, like skinny fingers, and I know it’s me they’re reaching for, trying to pluck me right out of the back of this car. (from the perspective of a murderer on the run)

Some of the characters in this collection were downright strange.  When Luikart was delving into their minds, he would show how they fixated on bizarre or seemingly trivial things.  For example, there was Dennis who has collected bird bones in a pill bottle and then goes out into the woods at dusk and lines the bones on moss.  Then there is Rich, the guy who once frittered away precious money on a pool table and waxes poetic about the wood grains of the table.   Or how about Tom, the guy who realizes he doesn’t have enough money in his ATM account to pay a prostitute and calls his wife to lovingly say goodnight and ask if she has made any purchasesL

My last prayer is for the neighbor’s grandchildren’s parents.  Those children will press their faces to the plate glass window when they see the swooping lights of the ambulance.  Dear Lord, let their parents tell them lies. – from the perspective of a man about to commit suicide

By the time I read the last story in The Museum of Heartache, “The Kingdom,”  I was so used to tragedy that I was certain one of the adult characters would do or say something sadistic to destroy the psyche of the young character.  The inclusion of this narrative about a father trying to connect with his child from his first marriage by taking him on a camping trip, along with his current wife, made me wonder.  Was the reader meant to end the collection on a more positive note?  Or did Luikart intend the reader to take on the pessimism of the previous excerpts and realize that this father would probably be inconsistent with his attempts to grow closer to his son and possibly even give up if interactions continue to be as awkward as the one in this story?

For me, knowing that real people face situations as uncomfortable and downright torturous as these did not make me feel better about life.  There was no happy ending.   There was no message that things could turn around for the characters.  There was no glimmer of faith that possibly there might be something better even after death.

There were deep creases from his nose to the corners of his mouth and she could imagine tears streaming through them as if they were canyons, the tears carving the canyons deeper and deeper into his face.” – from the perspective of a woman about to get scammed by a vagrant   

Some people who have battled depression have told me that listening to angry songs and reading sad stories somehow made them feel better.   So, this anthology might be the perfect book for people who need to be able to commiserate with others at a low point in their lives – or to realize that they in all actuality don’t have it all that bad!

The old man held the duct tape ball in his left hand and waved his right hand around in the air over top of it.  He closed his eyes and slackened his jaw and a low sound came from deep in his throat. –describing a beggar pretending to be a fortune teller

Certainly, Paul Luikart has a way with words.   The reader can feel immersed in a setting and life situation from the first couple sentences of each excerpt.  His dialogue is realistic and entertaining. I found that I quickly loved, hated, and felt connected to his characters. Paul Luikart is a gifted writer.  I will be keeping my eye out for his future books.

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