A book on a background of pavers titled
Gary Kadlec’s new collection of short stories, Grit Fiction (2022), takes a weird ride through the Wild West – or maybe a wild ride through the Weird West. Either way, you’ll enjoy the journey.
Amanda Hagood

Safety Harbor author Gary Kadlec is facing a writerly quandary. How can he make the demented, homicidal ex-circus clown Bing Cherry — one of the many fascinating characters that populate his book, Grit Fiction (self-published, 2022) — a tad more relatable?

And while he’s at it, how can he break this 12-story collection, as rich, bitter, and bracing as cowboy coffee under a desert sunrise, into the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store market?

Twisty Stories

Grit Fiction is part spaghetti Western and part country ballad, laced with a potent dose of surrealism. Characters like the aforementioned Bing Cherry skulk through accursed hamlets setting the world on fire. Or find themselves, like the accidental gunslinger Dead Eye Aim Darrell, blessed by a mysterious wasp that always stings their opponents at just the right moment. Until a bigger, meaner wasp comes along.

And while Kadlec’s plots are always surprising ­­­­— “twisty,” as he likes to put it — his unique voice is the star attraction of this wild west show. Witty and weird, with not a word wasted, Grit Fiction delivers its tales in short, almost poetic thunder bursts.

Consider “New Country For Old Men,” a road story about two strangers meeting and bonding over a ficticious country singer called Hugh “Ramblin’” Hamblin. Until their differences catch dramatically up to them. Kadlec sets up the tension memorably: “The driver’s face was golden tan, the passenger’s sun and wind burnt. Years and miles had weathered and leathered his swarthy face, while his gracious host had smooth, pampered skin. One man spoke euphonious, honeyed tones, the other’s speech was a ragged buzzsaw. Even the air was redolent with conflict: Sweat and asphalt versus Vitalis and Old Spice.”

Mean Clowns

Kadlec has been writing since the age of 5, keeping notebooks filled with short stories and poems. While few of his scribblings have been published, he did write children’s tales for a local radio station in Hickory, North Carolina. Guests would visit to read Kadlec’s yarns on air (including a dentist who performed his story “Fang Paste”).  

The origins of Grit Fiction extend back to the 1990s, when Kadlec and his brother took a long driving trip from Florida through the West.

“It was just so surreal,” he recalls. “We saw roadrunners!”

Since then, Kadlec has successfully published a few western-themed stories in the online magazine Frontier Tales. When Kadlec’s friend, designer Matthew Pfahlert, suggested they create a book, Kadlec’s bold voice and Pfahlert’s trippy sensibility came together in a unique product. Grit Fiction’s cover features a lone rider crossing a vast orange dune toward an exploding Stetson-shaped road sign (one that will be familiar to any patrons of Arby’s).

And the two aren’t done yet; Kadlec and Pfahlert are currently collaborating on a graphic novel featuring none other than Grit Fiction’s signature fool, Bing Cherry.

Why the joker, you might ask?

“Mean clowns get to say stuff out loud,” Kadlec grins.

Big at Buc-ee’s?

So far, Kadlec, assisted by his wife and business partner Julie Drocco, has had good luck selling his book through comic book shops, including Clearwater’s Emerald City Comics and Orlando’s Coliseum of Comics. (“Those are my people!” Kadlec exclaims.) They are gradually breaking into the western-wear store market, while Cracker Barrel and Buc-ee’s are their next frontier.

And what about your bookshelf? If you’ve got a soft spot for short tall tales with a high noon flare, mosey on down and grab yourself a copy. You won’t regret it. 

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