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Greetings from the Vodka Sea

by Chris Gudgeon

Victoria non-fiction author Chris Gudgeon’s first book of short fiction contains stories so unique that it’s near impossible to draw them under one clean phrase. One thing is clear: these are not normal people Gudgeon is writing about. If you were to take your strangest obsession or most bizarre experience and put it on steroids, you would have a story for this book.

In Greetings from the Vodka Sea, Gudgeon lets his imagination run free. A famous actor in a hospital is raped by a woman so ugly that he calls her “Mrs. Bukowski”; a drug-dealing father tries to communicate with his son, who has shut himself up in his room writing an opera in the Klingon language; and a couple go on an adulterous honeymoon next to a sea that is filled with schools of miniature red-eyed whales and, yes, vodka.

As might be expected from the author of The Naked Truth: A History of Sex in Canada, graphic descriptions of sex and desire punctuate the collection. Gudgeon’s use of sex works as a vehicle to play out the power dynamics between characters and demonstrate how those struggles turn the actors on. A repeating motif is the unattainable conquest – the old “Ode on a Grecian Urn” love that can never be consummated. The first and last stories take place during the FLQ crisis, and as in Casablanca, war makes love that much more erotic and bittersweet.

At times, though, the explicit descriptions become repetitive and tend to keep returning to clichéd phrases of erotic fiction: “she took him in her mouth”; “she wasn’t wearing any panties”; “her genitals pressed against his.” Women subtly shift their legs to reveal their underwear, and in a few places hands pretend not to notice they’re in contact with someone else’s crotch. The superficiality of these sections stands out in the otherwise complex stories.

Indeed, a complicated philosophy of love and relationships is being constructed behind these strange characters, but it’s a credit to Gudgeon that he doesn’t knock the reader over the head with it. The stories can be read purely for the pleasure of being a voyeur, peeking in on some very strange lives.