‘Barrelling Forward’ by Eva Crocker

Book Reviews

barrellingReviewed by Charlene Van Buekenhout

Reading the short stories in Barrelling Forward by emerging writer Eva Crocker was like an exercise in my body’s capacity for taking in anxiety by proxy. Crocker’s ability to infuse each story with cinematic detail creates suspense out of ordinary situations. A subtle, Hitchcockian creep towards a momentous and possibly horrible situation ultimately ends in “everything is ok for now” territory, or sometimes, unsatisfyingly, at a turning point, where the reader is left wishing but not knowing what happens next. The stories leave the reader with familiar feelings of unease, guilt, confusion, shame and relief. That anxious and unsettled place is where this collection lives. Eventually, I came to expect it, but this often created another layer of anxiety prompting me to “barrel forward” to see how much more suspense I had to bear. Helping me through it was the simple and sharp writing full of care and shocking exactness.

There are several stories of young women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five (approximately—specific ages are not always given), and this is where these complex yet common feelings of anxiety and danger are most intense and clearly drawn. Good examples are “The Landlord” and “Sightings,” in which you can get a very realistic dose of how women have normalized men’s behaviour toward them. “All Good Having A Great Time” looks at how quickly a situation turns, and how vulnerable we are as we teeter on the edge of bad decisions, tipping to one side or the other without too much effort.

Having been a young woman between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, I can’t believe, first of all, that I’m still alive, and second of all, that my parents didn’t die of anxiety having me out in the world with all of my young person’s confidence and narrow-world-perspective-yet-open-to-people attitude. In “The Landlord,” Mary is a student at Memorial University, has a part-time serving position at a family restaurant, and is just getting by. She wants to be liked and treated as an equal by the guys at work (meaning she wants to be seen as someone who can party with them, drink at work, and go out after). Sometimes this comes at the cost of rent, food or safety. It’s easy to imagine where this might go, but it doesn’t fully go THERE. An example: After a night of drinking, and failing to eat dinner, she accepts a ride home from her landlord who she runs into at the bar:

In the car she felt drunker. She hadn’t eaten since three o’clock. She ate her little pile of chips. There were chunks of pale tomato anchored in the cold cheese. He had K-Rock on; it was warm in the car and she felt nauseous. When they pulled up outside her house he put his hand on her thigh. “Still having trouble with the dryer?” “Yeah, it takes two or three cycles to get anything to dry.” “Give me a call tomorrow and remind me, I’ll send someone to look at it.”

The scene is seemingly harmless but for the red flag of the hand on the thigh; Mary manages to get out of the car and to the front door, but can’t find her keys. The landlord, doing the “right” thing by waiting for her to get inside, comes to help her. Mary is indebted to him. Not only does she owe him money, but now she’ll owe him for fixing the dryer. He embodies that low-level sexual harassment that women “just deal with,” and which is so clearly drawn and felt in this story. The seeming kindness of the landlord’s actions is overshadowed by the horror movie-style suspense, where the reader is poised waiting for that quick left turn into the scare shot. Instead, the story ambles forward to a less dramatic but still completely inappropriate and creepy turn, leaving the reader with a bad but sadly familiar feeling.

This is also the theme in “Sightings,” a shorter piece, but one that more clearly places the reader on the edge of horror where everything is fine. “All Good, Having a Great Time” is longer and thematically rides that edge, too, but spans a few months rather than a single month or week. “Auditioning” is another great suspense/cautionary tale that follows twin sisters who have completely different personalities and desires. It showcases that feeling of dread when you are being unwillingly led towards something you do not want to do, and the drastic things you’ll do to stop that momentum.

In “The Hypnotist,” a young woman, Ashley, interviews for a job for which she’s not qualified, and later goes out on a date with the interviewer. Right away, there is the sense that something is not right. The subtlety of this feeling is exacerbated by Ashley’s dismissal of her mother’s warning that the interviewer cheated her out of the job just so he could date her, and the sidebar of Ashley’s younger sister’s ex-boyfriend breaking into their house because he wants her back. It all foreshadows a toxic and fragile masculinity that expects certain things from women and then reacts badly when those expectations are dashed by reality. We have front row seats to the light struggle of Ashley’s date. Like a pros and cons list, we are witness to her own body’s chemical reactions to hand-holding (pro), the way she feels proud when introducing him to her Aunt and Uncle (pro), but also her wandering attention and boredom with the actual activity of the date (con). This teetering between pros and cons creates an unsettling feeling that we are about to be t-boned by an oncoming car that we won’t see until we’re hit. But that car drives by, and we are only struck by the uneventful end of a brief moment in someone’s life:

When they were settled in the dark with their programs in their laps, Martin leaned close to her ear. “I’ve been meaning to tell you, you look very pretty tonight.” His lips were touching her hair. She could see the bald spot on the back of Uncle Gord’s head two rows in front of them…. When the lights went down she laid her left hand on the armrest, hoping he would take it.

Later, when the hypnotist asks if there are any volunteers who’d like to come up on stage, she asks Martin, “‘Do you want to go? You should go if you want to.’” He replies, “‘I want to be with you.’ He took her hand and a jolt travelled through it straight to her crotch. A man next to them jumped up and they had to stand to let him pass on his way to the stage.”

These brief moments offer a snapshot of the unimportant, yet catalogued moments that make up memories and influences, and fuel each tiny decision that the characters make.

Other stories in the collection seem more like writing exercises than fully realized stories, such as “Dealing With Infestation,” “Serving” and “All Set Up.” These stories feature a voice different than the author’s own demographic (which is to say, a young woman), but I found they felt more like work to read through; the details and story turns felt more contrived than organic, and the characters a bit juvenile. While the strongest voices in the collection are those of women, the one exception to this is “Star of the Sea.” A middle-aged man who runs a furniture store is faced with the end of his marriage and his ex-wife and son moving on without him. Achingly sorrowful and touching, it is written with a realness and sadness that renders it impossible not to feel in your gut.

Crocker’s descriptors are what really gives her writing its edge. There is no generality inside the banality that she writes about, and so the simple descriptions and details carry with them the characters’ choices and points of view. What they notice and what piques their attention gives the stories that point of view style, either creating a dramatic character study, or a horror/suspense thriller out of an unremarkable, normalized, human situation. I hesitate to make too strong a comparison to Alice Munro, though they both write about ordinary Canadian lives. Crocker’s style is closer to J. D. Salinger’s short fiction (like Franny and Zooey), especially his use of detail to magnify the microscopic moments of our life that stick with us.

The banality of daily life and the universality inside Crocker’s unique characters is recognizable to most of us who go through life without exhaustive drama every step of the way. Reading Barrelling Forward will definitely offer moments that will stick with you.

Astoria | 264 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 9781487001438

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Charlene Van Buekenhout

Charlene Van Buekenhout lives in Winnipeg with her husband, several cats, and a dog. She is an actor, playwright, tap dancer, and artistic director of Echo Theatre.