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Buying Cigarettes for the Dog

by Stuart Ross

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog is the latest short fiction collection from Toronto writer and tireless small-press activist Stuart Ross. A considerable number of these stories have appeared in various periodicals, anthologies, and chapbooks since Henry Kafka and Other Stories, Ross’s previous fiction collection, was published in 1997. Though the stories vary widely in form, from parable to epistolary to minimalist surrealist fiction, there are recurring thematic concerns: pop culture and celebrity obsession, mid-20th-century nostalgia, family, and South American politics.

Like many of the stories in the collection, the first, “Three Arms Less,” begins in medias res, deftly establishing narrative focus with its opening sentence: “When there was a war, a little brown boy had his arms exploded right off the sides of his body, where they were attached at the shoulders. He was ten years old. It hurt him a lot.” By the end of the first paragraph, we’ve learned this boy has lost not only his arms, but also his entire family, and that he has become a cause célèbre, a poster boy for children who have lost limbs and loved ones in explosions. The third arm in the title belongs to a climber trapped on a mountain. In order to save himself from starvation, he is compelled to use the blade of a pocket knife to saw off his arm over the course of several days.

Despite the absence of specifics and the stretching of believability, the twin stories of limb loss are compelling in their humanity. We are told, matter-of-factly, that the boy will never be able to pursue the occupations he once dreamed of, like carpentry or music, while the mountaineer, an avid reader, is now forced to turn the pages of the novels he reads with one hand. The only authorial inflection in this story is the narrator’s naïveté, which is itself reflective of the style in which the two remarkably resilient characters might describe their fates themselves.

As so often happens in this collection, the fictive reality of the story gets pushed one step further, into the realm of the untenable. The loss of the multiple arms has bizarre repercussions that reach much further than the immediate circumstances of the amputees, throwing everything in the world off balance: “Buses were late and a guy fell on his head and Miss November’s left breast was a little bigger than her right breast and someone got a hamburger with a safety pin in it when they ordered a hamburger.”

On the other hand, the story maintains a balance between Ross’s penchant for the imaginatively absurd and absurdity of the kind we encounter on the evening news (such as a child victim in a war zone losing his arms in an explosion). The final result is memorable and affecting in a way that is difficult to pin down.

“The Suntan,” another standout, describes a poolside scene at a senior’s residence, as Albert Greenbaum attempts to invite the desirable Lana for “maybe a bagel and some potato salad.” Though it contains a few moments of amusing perversity – Albert attempting to prod a non-compliant testicle back into the leg of his swimming trunks, an aphid “frying gently on the large, brown expanse of Lana’s shining forehead” – this story at first appears to be one of entirely effective, straight-ahead realism. When Albert gives a heartfelt account of how his father survived imprisonment during both the Russian Revolution and the Second World War, one can’t help but hope he will be successful in his bid for Lana’s affection.

The climax of “The Suntan,” however, is entirely odd and seemingly antithetical to all that precedes it. Though inventive, the turning point in this tale is less successful than that of “Three Arms Less,” for there is nothing subtle or revelatory about its absurdity. It is difficult for the reader to reconcile the scene of Albert applying “chicken foot after chicken foot” to Lana’s flesh, when what comes before seems so sincere and uncontrived. Of course, it is entirely possible that this disjunction is the author’s very intention.

In their surreal brevity, many of the stories are reminiscent of the fiction of celebrated Israeli writer Etgar Karet. Others, such as “A City, Some Rain,” or “Shooting the Poodle,” are less successful. Occasionally, for example in “So Sue Me, You Talentless Fucker,” the heavy idiosyncrasies of the narrative voice completely overpower the virtues of the story.

A 45-page story entitled “Guided Missiles” accounts for a considerable chunk of the collection. The story is divided into a dozen separately titled sections, which alternately feature a late-night radio DJ and a deranged street preacher, the storylines eventually intersecting in a violent climax. There is some effective character observation, but this sustained narrative falls short of the appeal of the best shorter pieces, and its inclusion detracts from the overall quality of the collection.

Ross’s fiction, always at least slightly absurd or surreal, is frequently humorous. Occasionally, it is more deeply affecting. The reader who appreciates Ross’s aesthetic – as well as the challenges it poses – should mostly enjoy Buying Cigarettes for the Dog.