06 July 2010

Cigarettes review from Broken Pencil

Last year, my story collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog was reviewed by Broken Pencil founder/publisher Hal Niedzviecki. Hal and I had a little spat resulting from the fallout from the review, but I gotta say, mostly he's been a very strong supporter of my work. I never did put the review up here, and I just found it on the Internet. I think it's pretty insightful. I learned from it. This is from Issue 43 of BP. (Hal's theories aside, a small correction is probably in order: in paragraph 3, the word "threatened" would be more accurate than "sought.")

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog

Looking for the thematic connective tissue that holds together Stuart Ross's long awaited second book of short stories is like, well, buying cigarettes for the dog. It's an ill-advised activity, surreal and vaguely menacing, fruitless and nevertheless compulsively appealing. So what's it going to be? Here's one: Ross, venerable member of the Canadian small press scene, an excellently prickly personality, author of more than a dozen mostly slim volumes of mostly deadpan poems, gets angry.

There's an anger that burbles just below the surface of many of these stories. And when that anger percolates to the surface, as it does in the ranting narrative "So Sue Me, You Talentless Fucker" and several other of these pieces, there's a tendency to latch on to it as the ah-ha moment: Here's where Ross slams his cards on the table, shoves the smoldering tip of his cigar into the drink of the fat cat sitting next to him, and takes his stand against whiners, bullies, power brokers, and no-good cows plotting insurrection in the mountains.

But be careful now. A reread of "Sue Me", a story one cannot help but assume was inspired by a real life episode during which small press festival organizers sought to sue Ross for criticizing their efforts, shows more than just jarring - and maybe even oddly refreshing - rage. In that story, and in this book in general, Ross is, yes, pricklier than ever. But he's also funnier and more refined in the way he approaches his trademark narrative of a man, middle-aged, neither success nor failure, suddenly confronted by a weirdness like cows attacking or a walk that takes so long that by the time our everyman gets home his wife has up and died and new people have moved in. So, to get back to "Sue Me," here a parallel Ross neatly intersperses his newfound anger with his longtime themes of displacement, alienation, loss and guilt. "You grew a little beard and stood upon the stage," he writes of the playwright who will eventually sue the narrator, "and you were the rabbi, and even worse, you had a folding card table playing the role of a dining room table in a nice middle-class house, a folding card table like the one upon which my mother used to play maj jong in the living room, when I would creep down the stairs and take some ju-jubes from the little bowl." Anger, yes, but something more.

A something more that resides in stories like "The Suntan", stories where we keep expecting the anger, keep expecting the lash out, but it doesn't come. In "The Suntan", Albert Greenbaum, "a big balding man with a tub for a torso", disturbs the equilibrium of some Florida sanatorium by approaching the inscrutable Lana, tall, glistening, silent, and telling her the story of his father's life. Again, we have Ross-ian themes: guilt, silence, an ill-advised attempt to connect that disturbs the fragile, illusory peace we have become pathetically accustomed to. And again, in the figure of Greenbaum confronting the iconic Lana, who hides behind mystery the same way she hides behind her sun glasses, we get anger: who are you to hide from me? But, in the surprise turn the story takes, we also get the tenderness, the sense of a humanity that refuses to succumb to rage, that insists on the possibilities of redemption through a rupture of complacent silence. And so while it's easier to describe this book as angry Ross, ugly Ross, a Ross steeped in apocalyptic scenarios and Fin de si├Ęcle lunacies, that would be a mistake. This book, as good as anything Stuart Ross has done, is about redemption. It's the redemption Beckett sought for his tramps, Singer sought for his displaced Jews, and Ross's gaggle of hopeless everymen seek for themselves. (Hal Niedzviecki)

Over and out.


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