Zoologically speaking, the cloaca is the undifferentiated posterior orifice in birds, reptiles, and amphibians. It serves urinary, digestive, and reproductive functions carried out by specialized structures in other species. Thematically, The Cloaca is the perfect title for this second collection of short stories from Halifax-based writer Andrew Hood. The eight stories on offer are not the stuff of the head or the heart – they are of the gut, primal. Their characters are typically defined by reaction rather than action, response rather than drive, instinct rather than reason.
Take, for example, Frances, the main character in “Beginner,” the longest story in the collection and the centrepiece of the book. In her early thirties, she’s drifted from job to job, from educational experience to quickly forgotten flight of fancy. When she accidentally joins an introductory art class intended for children, it looks like another of her botched plans, but she is pulled into the orbit of Derek, a young boy from the class, and decides to stay. Their relationship develops almost accidentally, naturally, and has complex consequences.
There’s not much in the way of consideration or rational thought in any of Frances’s decisions or choices, and this is true for most of the characters in the collection. “I’m Sorry and Thank You,” the final story, revolves almost entirely around an unnamed character’s reaction to a “hippy mother” changing her baby’s diaper on his lawn. It’s a brief encounter in a brief story, but it affords a glimpse into a life that lingers long afterward.
In the absence of the exploration of motivations or rationales, the stories unfold with a vivid verisimilitude, character traits emerging easily out of reactions and conflicts. Throughout, Hood’s prose is workmanlike but effective; there are no pyrotechnics here, just good stories, well told.