F. Scott Fitzgerald published “The Crack-Up” as a three-part series in the February, March and April 1936 issues of Esquire. Although the initial critical response to it was less than kind, “The Crack-Up” would usher a new sub-genre, the highly personal confessional essay. By then the iconic author of The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night had hit his nadir, battled alcoholism and mental illness, and worked his way back to a brief period of clarity and literary fame.
“Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” begins the first of two epigraphs to The Cloaca by Andrew Hood, whose one previous collection, Pardon Our Monsters (Véhicule Press), won the Danuta Gleed Award. The quotation from Fitzgerald goes on to remind us that the blows that do us the most harm are self inflicted, their damage felt after many years and too late for repair. At first glance it’s odd that Hood, thirty, would choose an excerpt from “The Crack-Up” to set the tone for stories about young people poised at the lip of adulthood. Odd, that is, until we read his second epigraph, an exclamation from the 1995 stinker, Billy Madison, starring the formidably inane Adam Sandler: “He called the shit poop!” Ah, the balanced approach.
As a thematic companion, “The Crack-Up” seems better suited to the stories of Whirl Away. Journalist, editor of the St. John’s Telegram, multiple prize recipient for his fiction and nonfiction, Russell Wangersky gives us fully formed characters who have veered off the road and into life’s ditch. Decades of “that sort of blow that comes from within” have done their corrosive worst. Marriages lie in tatters, punitive law is all too familiar, youthful dreams have curdled. It takes a writer long years of observation and toil to inhabit such lives and to make of them a memorable fiction. It would appear to be no contest: the fifty-year-old has been around longer, he’s learned more about joy, boredom and pain.
These are two very different books, by writers at very different stages of their careers. Ideally they should be judged not one against the other but as figures seen at two points along a literary lifeline, as early and later F. Scotts, perhaps. Andrew Hood illuminates the concerns of his generation with fearless clarity, and if his prose lacks Fitzgerald’s silky elegance, he makes up for it in inventive expression and acerbic humour. Wangersky, having already lived six years longer than the Jazz Age novelist, makes us think about the substantial oeuvre a mature Fitzgerald might have produced had he not broken down so quickly.
The youthful narrator in Hood has a way of exposing adult disorder better than most adults. In “Manning,” the first story in The Cloaca, teenage Pickle is helping his mother “man” a booth at a flea market. They hope to sell a collection of sports cards left behind by her most recent ex-boyfriend. Pickle has an ear for linguistic quirk, especially the ready-made expressions we all lean on. His mother’s favourite is a variation on “I’m going to hit the road [bottle, hay, books] like it hit me first.”
Pickle finds her verbal tics equally annoying and endearing, but he too uses language as a crutch and a weapon. He introduces us to a corpulent customer, for example, as “this big pile of human.” The designation sticks; in Pickle’s mind and ours the man becomes “the pile.” If we are to take the book’s title as a thematic guide, then “pile” becomes a loaded word. It’s misleading to say that this collection is about what is excreted as life passes inexorably through our viscera. What’s more, I don’t think the book is aptly titled, given that most of the stories transcend the sewer and are so much more optimistic than is suggested by an aurally ugly word designating the avian excretory system. The book is so much better than either its name or its puke-green cover.
In “The Crack-Up” Fitzgerald vowed to “hold in balance the sense of futility of effort and the sense of necessity to struggle.” Only someone who has lost everything—reputation, fortune, health, love—can understand such a paradox. Whirl Away grapples ably with that balance of contradictory forces. Wangersky’s prose is polished, assured, clear, mainstream. He avoids Hood’s colloquialism, his imagery spare but effective. In the story “Family Law,” for example, pedestrians viewed from above street-level, their heads and shoulders snow covered, are likened to “small and moving mountaintops.” The litigants in a civil dispute are “March…versus May, like two different seasons at war: he’s cold, she’s blooming.” The story alternates between a survey of family-law cases, domestic train-wrecks all, and the main character’s affair with Mary, his legal assistant. He and his wife were happy once. Now theirs is the most functional of communication; they avoid or ignore the damning evidence at hand. As do many of the stories in Whirl Away, this ends with a flourish, a revelation that feels like a surprise but isn’t or shouldn’t be to the attentive reader.
Fitzgerald’s yin/yang of futility and continued struggle plays out vividly in Wangersky’s world. In “Bolt,” John, married to Bev but living with Anne, is killed in a freak driving-accident. The story examines Anne’s assumptions about her lover and their relationship, illustrating the adage that one can never know everything about another, even a significantly intimate other. The story succeeds because it avoids the pitfalls of that MFA in Creative Writing staple, the living-together story viewed minute by airless minute from within.
Hood’s “The Shrew’s Dilemma” is an uncomfortable example of such. Although her name, we learn, is Emma, the main character is referred to only as “this woman” or “she.” Hood is testing a cool, emotionally clipped stance here, at times trying too hard to be stylistically arresting. “She waits around in bed for him to rouse is the sort of woman this woman is” and “He looks to her like he sleeps as if he knows he’s being watched is how perfectly and quietly he sleeps” take redundant cuteness to the limit of reader patience. Occasionally, though, a phrase clicks. Unemployed for the summer, “this woman’s hands are a mess with time.” But then what does the phrase “stinking ass-load” add to the sentence, “It matters a stinking ass-load that he had and always will have seven years on her”? Emma’s concerns are similarly superficial, achingly immature. She frets about the unalterable. Asked what she is trying to say in her painting, all she can muster is that it’s about life. “What about life?” her boyfriend probes. She doesn’t know. Nor, apparently, does Hood in this story.
Wangersky usually propels his fiction through complete trajectories. An exception is “McNally’s Fair,” a story with a strong set-up and complex characters but one stuck at the top of its arc, all potential and little kinetic energy. “911” is its successful opposite, a dashboard-gripping look inside the world of emergency first-responders. Tim, a paramedic on suspension from work because of insubordination, takes an out-of-service ambulance out alone on a 911 call, all other units in the area being busy. Although its ending smacks of editorializing, the story’s momentum is riveting. An evident trend in Wangersky’s work is that all is revealed even if all is far from resolved.
Just as a youthful narrator can speak truths adults might overlook, so too can a writer at the gloriously wide-open beginning of a career produce the kind of story older scribes can only reminisce about. Hood’s “Beginner” is arguably the best of The Cloaca and Whirl Away. Full of heart, wit and idiosyncratic detail, it could easily have been sustained to novella length or longer. Frances, early thirties, is the perpetual beginner flitting from one interest to the next: karate, English literature, the accordion.
There were boyfriends and girlfriends and university degrees, and philosophies both low- and highfalutin. There were trades and travel plans. And there was quitting the same café job over and over…. Everything in Frances’s life was adding up to something like Zeno’s paradox, which Frances understood enough to know that it had something to do with moving forward but never getting anywhere.
After she mistakenly enrolls in a children’s art class, she remains, striking a slow-developing friendship with a ten-year-old misfit named Derek. Bluntly oblivious to the feelings of others, Derek is that necessary disturbance to jolt Frances out of her beginner’s rut. Her misconception is that life’s components need to be brought into perfect alignment, the equivalent of photographic realism, in the way Derek strives to draw an anatomically perfect female breast. He has a valid excuse: he’s ten and Miss Voss the bra-less art teacher wears see-through blouses. Frances will get there, we feel, she’ll rediscover a childlike engagement with life, but for now it’s as if she’s strapped into a mechanized chair moving jerkily from one stair to the next.
Of these two writers, Russell Wangersky is the more traditionally impressive. His stories are sculpted. They aim towards clearly marked signposts of inevitability. Set in motion they pull the willing reader along, although never do they whirl away unpredictably. What Andrew Hood achieves that Wangersky does not, in compensation for exuberant fits of stylistic excess, is an instinct for the intricacies of character and a disdainful nose for stereotype and emotional dishonesty. Hood is still able to jump up from his hiding place and surprise us. It’s a talent to nurture and to protect jealously against the dulling effects of age.
The Cloaca | Invisible | 160 pages | paper | $16.95 | ISBN #978-1926743196
Whirl Away | Thomas Allen | 240 pages | paper | $21.95 | ISBN #978-0887629365