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Bang Crunch

by Neil Smith

There is a school of writing – let’s call it the Dave Eggers school – that prizes cleverness above all other attributes. Not wit, mind you, but cleverness. The kind of cleverness that has an author craft a story about a widow who keeps her dead husband’s ashes in a curling stone, with which she carries on conversations. The kind of cleverness that has the stone tell her that she has been successful at keeping her alcoholism at bay because “I’m your rock.” The kind of cleverness that has a guy in a pickup truck toss a cardboard box out his window, “littering the road with a litter of kittens.” And so on.

The nine stories in Montreal-based author Neil Smith’s debut collection too frequently resort to these types of rhetorical flourishes, which are distracting at best and maddening at worst. Smith’s prose is replete with awkward similes (“These canine teeth of mine … stick out like box seats at the opera.”) and eccentricity for eccentricity’s sake (the protagonist of the title story is named Eepie Carpetrod).

There is also a lack of control evident in many of the stories. The first paragraph of “Isolettes,” for instance, describes a premature baby in an incubator by comparing it variously to “robotic Magi,” “shrimp … under the rice paper of a spring roll,” and “an extraterrestrial … kept alive by G-men.” All this over a scant 14 lines of text.

The two best stories in the collection – “Scrapbook,” about the fallout from a shooting at a university, and “Jaybird,” about a professional actor who takes a young protégé under his wing, with disastrous results – are, unsurprisingly, the two stories in which Smith reins in his tendency to preen and simply lets the events unfold.

As a child, Peggy, the widow with the curling stone urn, acts out episodes of I Love Lucy for her mother, who repeatedly urges, “Restrain yourself!” It’s a directive that her creator would do well to heed.