It makes sense that Dammit, I Learned a Lot From That Son-of-a-Gun began with the title. As Anita Kulina, the book's publisher, says, "I've always loved movies with sentence titles, like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. That way you really know what you're getting into."
Kulina, a writer herself and graduate-program coordinator at the Carnegie Mellon School of Design, started Brandt Street Press to publish local writing with an acute sense of time and place. One of its first publications was her own Mill Hunks and Renegades, a creative historical account of her home neighborhood of Greenfield.
Now comes the "Dammit" series, collections of essays by local writers both amateur and professional, telling stories of lessons learned from hardship. In this case, the hardship's at the hands of said sons-of-guns. But a fascination with history shines through even in these 12 deeply personal stories.
The opening essay, Mike Connell's "Honor," vividly recalls its author's Pittsburgh childhood while name-checking neighborhoods, intersections and even Giant Eagle locations. The language is functional and distinctly Pittsburghese, without laying it on too thick.
"The writers we got for this project, we got because they were just really good storytellers," said Kulina. "We just told them to write the story as if they were just speaking it to another person in a dark room."
Brandt Street Press insists on the veracity of these stories; authors were even made to sign contracts to that effect. And if some stories seem outlandish, well, truth is stranger than fiction. But some of the stories are truly traumatic. For example, Bill Collins' entry uses the essay to respond to the long-ignored letters his sister sent him from jail.
Planned Brandt Street titles include Dammit, I Love You, and a travel-themed edition with the working title Dammit, Why Did I Go There? For now, Son-of-a-Gun is available directly through the press (www.brandtstreetpress.com), or at East End Book Exchange, in Bloomfield.
While the writing in Son-of-a-Gun isn't all particularly elegant, it's compulsively readable, full of history, and clever without being didactic. Plus, it does an excellent job of outlining the son-of-a-gun as a character.
"In Pittsburgh jargon, we would probably call them jag-offs, but they're still our teachers," said Kulina. "We learn more from them than we do from the people who treat us well."