A MAN WHOSE JOB is to clean up the aftermath of messy suicides cranks Death Cab for Cutie to calm himself whenever a scene is particularly grisly. Reaganomics-minded lawyers discover crack cocaine in the '80s. A man offers a woman Dilaudid on the first date. Richard Wirick's Kicking In is a drug-and-gore threaded collection that ranges from an Amish boy's first encounter with NASCAR to a solider in Somalia, sitting at the bedside of a friend who's been hit with a missile.

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Wirick is palpably straining for gritty with this collection, and it doesn't always work—one story, in which the aforementioned Amish kid trips and falls nose-first into a pile of meth, is too carelessly goofy in its improbability. But that same casual disregard for the possible works just fine in another story, "Peaceable Kingdom": A group of Americans spend an afternoon on a beach, recklessly shattering conch shells against a rock face until it turns into a "wall of gore." Later, the men are simultaneously afflicted with a poison that causes blood to shoot from their eyes and mouths, "like water sent up from lawn sprinklers."

Wirick is far better at describing physical states than mental ones. His characters blur together into a kind of dispassionate collective narrator, but his descriptions of the mess the human body makes, in pain and in death, are striking. It's a recurring focus throughout the book, the amount of goop that can leak and smear and ooze and explode out of a person—the human body as a fresh tube of paint, waiting only for a squeeze.

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