Stuart Ross’s 2010 story collection, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, enjoyed an enthusiastic critical reception and won the ReLit Award for short fiction. The Toronto author follows this success with a first novel: a slim book about big questions that is both playful and sincere, ebullient and melancholic.
Ben, the novel’s protagonist, is an eccentric performance artist on the cusp of middle age. In non-chronological fashion he reflects on memories of childhood, summer camps, university, girlfriends, grandparents, art projects, and pop culture. Surrealism seeps into the text when Hollywood celebrities and inanimate objects take on as much agency as friends and family members. With peculiar titles like “Thus Do His Eyeballs Rattle,” “Interview with a Hardhat,” and “The Twelve Rabbis of, um, of, um, of, uh,” the novel’s brief, self-contained, often humorous chapters have much in common with Ross’s short fiction.
Despite frequent moments of levity, there is a pervasive sadness to the narrative, stemming from the loss of Ben’s parents to cancer and the institutionalization of his brother. At the novel’s heart is Ben’s unsettling memory of his mother, who assassinated a neo-Nazi leader. This incident still doesn’t seem real to Ben: its violence is completely at odds with his mother’s character. He struggles to understand the shooting in the context of the anti-Semitism both he and his mother suffered as children.
The novel ultimately weighs evil, suffering, and loss against life’s small pleasures and enduring joys – filial and romantic love, friendship, food, and art. As suggested by the novel’s title, lists frequently find their way into the narrative: the chapter called “Everything,” for example, consists of a three-page catalogue of Ben’s cultural enthusiasms.
Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew lacks an entirely compelling narrative arc, but nevertheless provides satisfaction in its sustained development of character, deft control of tone, and Ross’s characteristic combination of spontaneity and craft.