Darkly majestic but notably grim, Paul Carlucci’s third story collection luxuriates in misery. While Carlucci immerses readers in swampiness, the mammoth stories in C.P. Boyko’s challenging third collection draw attention to writerly technique.
Though Carlucci’s apparent pessimism (or misanthropy) will feel bludgeoning for some readers, there’s no denying he writes a mean sentence and conjures bleak scenarios to startling life. The nine linked pieces in his latest collection command attention.
The absorbing, expertly paced, and gallows-funny title story relates the history of Franklin Place, a concrete apartment tower that dominates the skyline of a Northwest Territories town. Carlucci vividly depicts the titular building – its beginning, destruction, and intervening decades that are symbolized by a creeping black mould – and the pitiful ends of its three generations of caretakers. The author recounts the family history of its befuddled current owner, Norman, from a “repulsive, deformed, laughable” father to a grandfather who established paranoia as a cross-generational familial trait.
Other stories evince similar despair: “His eyes were delusional with painkillers and the end of his life”; “She was used to the awful look of the place, the chipped floor caked in waste, profanity etched into the banisters.” These acidic observations come from “The Summer I Learned to Fish” – the evocation of nostalgia is confined to the story’s title. Other entries are set within “little cracktown” (a local nickname for Franklin Place’s middle floors).
Carlucci mercilessly depicts the town (blighted, narcotized, feral, violent, racist), the building’s tenants (sad, shut-ins, abused, addicted, brutal, murdered), and the weather (unnerving sun at night, fly-infested summers, perilous winters). Pleasures come with steep costs, hope evaporates, sex is mercenary, and a bright future gets revealed as illusory.
The harshness outmatches even a clutch of carousel horses: “They were ridden by drunks and druggies and sniffed at by deer and pissed on by wolves.” In “As of Right Now,” poor Norman – now a corpse that sports “all kinds of rotten colours” – makes a final appearance; the collection’s ultimate story bids a farewell to its eponymous edifice that’s anything but fond.
Boyko’s The Children’s War substitutes Carlucci’s unsparing attitude with maximalist style. Complete with scores of characters, the farcical, absurd, deft story “The Takeover of Founders’ Hall” gathers together students, faculty, and staff (as well as reporters and a bomb squad) at an unnamed university where trifling protests transform into a public relations disaster. It’s a searing vision of folly and a picture of the Ivory Tower that’s hilariously irreverent.
In contrast, the elaborate pastiche “Year-End” suggests pre-TV screwball comedy spliced with dramas from the mid-1930s. Set at a factory where workers spar with management and an owners’ rep named Ms. Ottavia Farr-Mp, it features speeches – “If they can’t get a raise, it’s not me, it’s the union to blame. … That haven of sinecure; nest of red tape and committees fissiparous; creep-hole of delegates, stewards, and cronies! By God, I detest them, the unions!” – that grow progressively wearying. By the final pages, not only has the fun disappeared but the story has grown curiously empty, a wildly mannered performance with a mystifying purpose.
Across 14 sections (and close to 100 pages), “Infantry” conveys the trauma of war, along with foot rot, fatalities, friendships, pranks, and spells of boredom. Rendered as vignettes about a platoon of female soldiers in a placeless conflict between “medipodean,” “suprapodean,” and “infrapodean” factions, the story beguiles and unsettles even as it raises questions of overall authorial intent. Ditto for “Birth Pangs,” a wholly bizarre yet absorbing account of consciousness raising, an embattled three-member family, and what may be the world’s longest and most visceral depiction of childbirth at the hands of inept, indifferent, and distracted medical staff.
“Andrew and Hillary” begins with a girl in a motel parking lot struggling to understand a book. (The text appears to her as: “Huvitiq, the many millions of niqti foziqs would be voqsaekly superfkauar …”). By the story’s final stages, the girl has become Doctor Vadilevaniakis, a dutiful but tense surgeon involved in an “indefensible” war on an undisclosed island. Slamming together disparate genres, the piece impresses as a showcase of terrific writing and untrammelled invention.
Taken together, The High-Rise at Fort Fierce and The Children’s War can be said to share power relations as a pervading theme. Individually, they better illustrate the sheer elasticity of the short-story form.