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Pretty

by Greg Kearney

A fraudulent Celtic seer instructs a moody artist considering gender transition to act upon the desire by age 36 – or risk being decapitated. This is a fairly typical storyline in Greg Kearney’s second collection, sure to be one of the most distinctive and original books published this year.

The Toronto-based author picks up where he left off with his flash-fiction debut, Mommy Daddy Baby, mining the same comedic seam of extreme absurdism. But the 11 stories in this new collection benefit from added depth and complexity.

Kearney is supremely inventive. Many short stories have addressed the theme of female self-determination. But Kearney’s “Mary Steenburgen” might be the first to explore the subject via a housewife’s impassioned soliloquy to her aging, crack-addled husband about the type of woman she would prefer to include in their next threeway.

Of special note is Kearney’s focus, in several stories, on the experience of HIV in the lives of contemporary queers. Decades ago, literature about AIDS was a defining characteristic of the LGBT canon; today it’s rarely mentioned at all. But the virus continues to ravage gay men, whether in the form of physical side-effects from antiretroviral medications or the stigmatizing barbs of insensitive suitors.

The protagonist of “What to Wear” faces each of these challenges with aplomb. Notwithstanding his struggles with the disease, Ron appears radiant in contrast to his sister Sheila, a meth-abusing fitness instructor known for the effectiveness of her Kegel exercises. Kearney manages to be both kooky and moving here – a worthy successor to the wise-cracking genius of 1980s AIDS fiction, David B. Feinberg.

The book’s emotional climax comes in the story “Scoodly! Doo! Wop! Wow!,” in which Wanda, a 54-year-old, two-hit-wonder Canadian chanteuse gives relationship advice to man-and-wife yuppie documentarians. The dramatic manner in which Wanda expels the manipulative duo from her life has a transformational effect on her vocal cords. But even before this transformation, Wanda’s voice is utterly unique. The same can be said about this book’s author.