Matthew Firth excels at writing arresting opening sentences. “Action,” the first story in the Ottawa writer’s fourth collection, begins with a description of Tatiana, a suburban housewife who “masturbates with an action figure – a Spider-Man about eight inches long, missing its arms.” But Firth’s strength lies not simply in provocatively deploying overt sexuality, but rather the way he leverages bald carnality to make broader, potent statements about the human condition. Universal concerns like work, sex, and death feature prominently in Shag Carpet Action, which consists of 10 short stories and a concluding novella.
The briefest vignettes make the most lasting impressions. In “Three Women on the Bus,” fortysomething Sean eavesdrops on a young trio noisily recounting their experiences with pubic waxing. Prurient interest gives way to a middle-aged man’s existential reflection on his own position in our culture’s sexual pecking order. We are made to realize that he’s the one plucked bare.
Displacement and alienation, common elements in Firth’s stories, are given hilarious treatment in “Greeks.” A man living in Scotland finds himself vexed by his upstairs neighbours, a pair of young brothers from Greece who create an around-the-clock ruckus by wrestling half-naked. One of the siblings accuses the man, who can somehow never locate his wife, of being gay. He’s incited, yet incapacitated: “But where do I grab him? They’re both wearing loincloths and are slick with sweat.”
The novella “Dog Fucker Blues,” which takes up almost half this slim volume, meditates on the good, bad, and ugly aspects of a trade-union contract battle. From pill-pushing thugs to drugged-out sex workers to rank-and-file stalwart socialists, Firth illuminates a range of characters while avoiding simple stereotypes. But the longer form doesn’t serve him well. Pages of extended exposition may help readers unfamiliar with union politics, but they come at the expense of narrative drive.
The rest of the collection has as much to say – more effectively and in fewer words – about the futile demoralization of labour, and the welcome relief provided by well-delivered sexual satisfaction.