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Pickle Me This

February 7, 2008

Bang Crunch by Neil Smith

More than anything, I liked Neil Smith’s Bang Crunch for enacting a scene I’ve been dreaming about for ages: husband and wife get pranked in one of these terrible “comedy” candid camera set-ups they’re always showing on airplanes and/or Canadian television outside of prime time. Turns out the wheelchair rolling down the hill has a dummy inside, in an attempt to catch it wife has fallen down and scraped her knee. Man pops out with a camera, there’s a waiver to be signed, but husband beats the crap out of cameraman instead (tossing camera into a nearby gutter). Why doesn’t this happen more often? Never has violence been less senseless.

This is sort of the way it is with Neil Smith’s collection– it’s full of very cool stuff, good ideas, perfect premises. The final story had me breathing in so sharply I thought I’d swallow myself. The end of the first story did shocking so subtly, I scarcely noticed I’d been hit.

A few stand-out tracks: I loved “Funny Weird or Funny Ha ha?”, starring the woman who fell and scraped her knee. She stores her husband’s ashes in a hollowed out curling rock, which is sort of annoying, but it ceased to be the point of the story for me. Notable too, though perhaps it shouldn’t be, that Smith pitches this woman’s voice so perfectly. “Green Flourescent Protein” was a linked story, and managed the same beautiful sadness, cloaked in a sense of humour. Sympathy sympathy. Smith does it. I also liked “Isolettes”– unconventional drama in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The story made me terribly uncomfortable, but after I realized that there was its power.

Smith’s strengths are not always where he thinks they are. I thought he did pinpoint characters beautifully, wacky premises perfectly formed, but sometimes the writing itself was too conspicuous. The similes and metaphors are unconventional, which works sometimes– for example, “Not a blanket or a shroud of loneliness, but something thinner, tighter. A leotard of loneliness.” Which is awkward, and took me awhile to get my head around, but once I did I felt there was a payoff. Whereas, “A vein in his neck looked as swollen as a garden hose” really doesn’t work at all.

So though I enjoyed this work and would recommend it without reservation, I think it’s the work of a writer finding his feet. Which is to be expected of somebody’s very first book, and imperfect first books always make me hopeful, excited when they have that certain something. I’m pleased that publishers take chances on potential. And this book indeed has that “certain something”, with all the “stuff” packed inside it. Though of course “stuff” does not a short story make– I would lay bets on Smith as a novelist, the longer form forcing him to put away his toys and build up something of the substance that shows in glimmers here.

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