13 October 2009

Cigarettes in sub-Terrain

sub-Terrain, the punchy Vancouver litmag where my Hunkamooga column appears, has run a review of Buying Cigarettes for the Dog.

There's been something really encouraging about the mostly positive attention my short stories have been getting, and in the past couple of weeks, I've written six new stories. That's all got to stop now, because I'm smothered in editing work and gotta get back to all that or I'm doomed.

Here's the review:

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog: Stories
by Stuart Ross
Freehand Books, 2009; 200 pp; $19.95

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog is Stuart Ross's second collection of short stories, released into a bibliography thick with poetry, plus two collaborative novels and a book of essays. Ross is what you might call a writer's writer. Not only a poet and essayist, he has published and sold his own chapbooks, and is also a poetry editor and co-founder of the Toronto Small Press Book Festival. Not to mention his Hunkamooga column for this very magazine, the fearless true tales of trying to make a living by writing in Canada.

It's no mean feat, and Ross has done the work. This collection shows the effort of a mature writer who's not afraid to play, plopping the reader into absurd situations and dangling disbelief above our heads, such as in the title story about a man who goes out for a pack of cigarettes and decides to "circle the globe and still be home in time for dinner." He walks and walks, acquiring a "small apartment with a dog and typewriter named Princey" in the process, before remembering he was on an errand and returning home, or where he used to live, anyway.

It's all the sort of thing you don't often get all at once in Canadian fiction: originality, inventiveness, and stories that hang together. It feels more like a South American writer in translation, frankly. I chewed through each one of the twenty odd pieces, delighting in the wordplay and imagery of each, as well as their diverse forms. "Language Lessons with Simon and Marie" riffs on the stilted dialogue of ESL texts, while "So Sue Me, You Talentless Fucker" subverts the expected emotionless language of legalese into a scathing rant simply by beginning every long, angry, funny sentence with a "whereas."

Some of the stories are long, interconnected affairs; some are short. It's hard to sum up the book without resorting to the word "zany." How else to describe a story like "Cow Story," which imagines a world where cows are invading the city, blocking spaces meant for people, such as elevators and supermarket aisles, and forcing the narrator to alter his routines and plans and movements. And when the cows are gone (much like wildlife from new-ish suburbs), the people feel the emptiness. Or "Me and the Pope," in which the Pope is a guy who comes to crash in your apartment, leaving a mess and stealing your girlfriend before going out to do his Popemobile thing.

Like most short story collections, the assortment is uneven, and Ross's brand of poetic surrealism tends to work better in shorter bursts than sustained over the longer stories. "Guided Missiles," the longest story in the collection, concerns a group of losers with overlapping lives, a part-time DJ named Archie, his neighbour Martita, a stalker by the name of Hank and a street preacher referred to as "the prophet"—all set in some unnamed North American city, with political strife in Nicaragua simmering in the background. A wonderful piece to read, with lines like, "He looked into the leaves above and through them he saw the grey clouds, rolling and tumbling like waves of lava, bubbling and screeching, spitting out the occasional bird and always threatening to smother the earth." However, and maybe this is just me, in the thick of description and dialogue, I often lost the plot points and had to go back a couple of pages to find where I was in the story.

Ross's background as a poet translates well to creating fiction. His work is experimental but accessible, and anyone with a modicum of appreciation for satire and surrealism (Kids in the Hall fans perhaps?) ought to pick up these smokin' Cigarettes.

— Christine Rowlands

Over and out.


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