Richard Cumyn is a writer who doesn’t like to be boxed in. The stories collected here resist pigeonholing: they are narrated by young and old voices belonging to men and women, Jews, Muslims, and old-money WASPs. Characters work in laundromats, insurance offices, hair salons, and high schools, and we learn how bladder bags operate and how hair plugs are installed.
Despite this range, certain elements do recur. The stories often involve peripheral violence that people are drawn into as bystanders or unwilling participants. Relationships have an off-kilter quality, many of them involving breakdowns or unrequited loves (the laundromat owner for one of his clients, a hairdresser for a gay female impersonator). And the world of the workplace is addressed more completely than in most literary offerings.
The writing is characterized by a somewhat stiff formality, a deliberate style that tries to fit a few too many words into a sentence and never seems quite natural or rhythmic. Perhaps the best story is the Mark Anthony Jarmanesque “The Goddess Throws Down,” which has a refreshingly restless pace and energy. Also very good is the title story, whose slightly unhinged narrator – a high school teacher with a unique way of making history come to life – provides a similar spark.
Just as often, however, Cumyn’s prose – and even at times his dialogue – seems stuck in low gear. The characters and their environments are all nicely imagined, but Cumyn takes too few chances when it comes to the actual words on the page.