31 May 2009

Cigarettes reviewed in the Vancouver Sun

Yesterday, the day of the Vancouver launch of Cigarettes, a review appeared in the Vancouver Sun, by M.A.C. Farrant, a writer who I admire a great deal. So I was pretty relieved she liked the book. The last time I was reviewed in the Vancouver Sun, it was for my first poetry collection, The Inspiration Cha-Cha, and it was a merciless evisceration by Susan Musgrave.

Wisdom and whimsy break out all over

In stories with droll titles, Stuart Ross nails our plight

MAY 30, 2009

By Stuart Ross
Freehand Books/Broadview Press, 192 pages ($19.95)

- - -

"I will write a book about rocks and sadness," a Stuart Ross character says in the [third] story of his new collection, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog. And though it's true that a strong vein of melancholy is present throughout the book and rocks do appear, he offers much more besides.

Stuart Ross is poet, novelist, anthologist and essayist. A tireless literary activist for decades, he co-founded the Toronto Small Press Book Fair and is the fiction and poetry editor at This Magazine.

A writer with an original sensibility, he's got a gazillion curious, funny and disturbing things to say about our lives and our world. Read this book — you'll see.

An example: In the very funny story, [Howie Tosses and Turns], a murderer with a philosophical bent appears and takes up residence on a hapless man's couch, this being "just a regular day on the planet."

Typically, Ross's characters are hapless men. Also, middle-aged and single.

In having "lost track of one's existence until the cigarette burns one's fingers," they typically wander off to the corner store for smokes one afternoon and return years later, barely able to remember where they've been.

And isn't that just like life? One minute you're swinging on the monkey bars and the next, you're digging in your heels at the open grave, yelling, "Stop! Not yet!"

Stuart Ross nails it. Nails our fate.

In the title story, he writes: "You never know how the years are going to shove you around."

There you are in the seventh grade, happily reading your Archie comic and, before you know it, you're obsessed with transcribing Don Quixote, using dead flies to spell out the words.

Dead flies frequently appear in his stories, most memorably in the superb Guided Missiles, where they anoint the eyes of a dying street prophet. This story — a 46-page rhapsody, a hymn — is about transcendence, metamorphoses and the quest to find a "place of calm" by listening to late-night radio and hanging out in donut shops.

Terminal estrangement. Lives that follow "a predictable pattern, with few surprises." This is Stuart Ross territory.

People are "condemned to watching this speeding world, these cars that whip by as metallic blurs." The characters live sleepwalking lives — that is, until they are blown awake by the inexplicable: body parts falling off; cows appearing in grocery-store aisles; a band of Latin American revolutionaries fighting it out as fleas in the matted fur of a Mexican dog; humans becoming an endangered species; a deranged street prophet screaming about "the horrible, crippling, oozing illness"; a numbat, a remora, a tiny black thrip.

Beneath Ross's droll story titles — Howie Tosses and Turns, Elliott Goes to School, Shooting the Poodle — a fickle and riotous world exists.

And, when it comes to the body, watch out. There's "always something to fuss about." Bodies are unreliable as hell. And so are minds, for that matter, and memory, and time, which is fluid, like rainwater rushing toward a drain.

Yet human beings exist to maintain the balance of the universe, Ross is telling us. In fact, he's saying, reaching out to one another in love and tenderness is how we do this. What's more, it's how we can change the course of world events.We should try that some time. Soon.

M.A.C. Farrant is the author of The Secret Lives of Litterbugs and other books.

Stuart Ross will be one of two authors reading today at 7 p.m. at Cafe Montmartre, 4362 Main, Free.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

The launch last night was nice: excellent to see Mark Laba and Clint Burnham, Laura Farina, Brian Kaufman, Renee Rodin, Ameen Merchant, Dennis Bolen, Jenn Farrell and lots of others. And to share the evening with Alexandra Leggat, who was launching Animal from Anvil Press. Her reading from the book, all too short, was fantastic.

Over and out.


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