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Book Reviews

What Boys Like and Other Stories

by Amy Jones

At the heart of Toronto-based Amy Jones’s Metcalf-Rooke Award-winning debut is a whirlpool of dissatisfaction and longing – the ache of teenage alienation; the fitful malaise of relationships; the anguish of unrequited intimacy. But almost every story in the collection filters discontent through laugh-out-loud humour and the throb of libido.

“A Good Girl,” for example, involves a chance sexual encounter that morphs into a routine booty call. Alex, a waiter in his early thirties, finds himself uncomfortably obsessed with 18-year-old Leah, who is wholly disinterested in satisfying any itches other than her own. Desperate choices follow, but Jones maintains a pace that’s at once coltish, clever, and compassionate. “Post-Mortem,” featuring a model whose claim to fame is her apple-cheeked ass, and whose brother-in-law habitually jerks off to her adverts, keenly autopsies disparate experiences of misery and delivers characters who are candid, selfish, and unapologetic.

“The Church of Latter-Day Peaches,” about the funeral for Marty Peach, recently deceased heir to the Peach chocolate fortune, is easily the collection’s strongest story. As Georgia, Marty’s pregnant widow, prepares to attend the funeral alongside her mother, Lilly, Jones intersperses back story about Georgia’s high school years and her marriage. It’s here, as Jones digs into the meat of her characters, that the story is at its strongest. Lilly, in particular, is a fascinating and heart-wrenching study of grief.

At times, stories succumb to underdeveloped characters, dull images, and repetitive content. “Where You Are,” an ode to an aborted child, suffers from stock what-ifs that mire the narrator’s lament in sluggish sentimentality. In the title story, Audrey, an awkward, lingerie-peddling virgin, falls for a customer. While gags abound, motivation gives way to romantic cliché. And when an uptight couple is besieged by noisy neighbour sex in “Talking About the Weather,” slack lines like he “kissed her on the forehead in that precise spot where every girl wants to be kissed” render character psychology as mundane as the couple’s stale relationship.

Having said that, when Jones hits her stride, she displays an incisive eye, a knack for poignancy, and sharp, witty dialogue.