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Wish Book: A Catalogue of Stories

by Derek McCormack

If, say, Flannery O’Connor and oh, say, David Lynch were to meet in, let’s just say, a fetish club somewhere, and decide that they were born to collaborate, the product of their mindmeld might read something like Derek McCormack’s Wish Book: A Catalogue of Stories. Like Dark Rides, a miniature masterpiece he published in 1996, Wish Book is set in some vaguely defined, relatively recent, netherworld. In a very oblique way, Wish Book – with its nifty illustrations by Ian Phillips – is meant to suggest a mail-order catalogue from the 1930s. As was the case in Dark Rides, the setting for many of these linked stories is Peterborough and environs, a landscape that in the McCormack translation looks like an entertaining pit stop situated roughly between the seventh and eighth circles of hell. Here too, as in his earlier book, he circulates around the loopy margins, around the seamy side of hospitals and fairgrounds and department stores, peopling the stories with duplicitous carnies and sideshow freaks, with dirt-poor farmers and self-taught taxidermists: in other words, it’s Disneyland for grownups.

All writing is about selecting and discarding, and McCormack makes particularly fascinating, sometimes downright alarming choices. In deftly crafted, aphoristic sentences, he X-rays everyday things and reveals the threat, the potential violence that is scarcely contained beneath their scored, pocked surfaces. God is in the details, and the details here are especially odd and fascinating. You learn, for instance, that a midway is called the “hanky pank,” that carnival prizes are called “flash,” that the Wheel of Fortune is called the “plush wheel” or “flat wheel,” that the “blow-off” is where they keep the “punks,” and that the punks are “pickled babies.” In the end, it doesn’t much matter how we name, how specifically we identify or catalogue objects and impulses. They are never our friends. There is always a present danger.

Wish Book is an odd, satisfying, disturbing, funny book by a young Canadian writer who continues to cultivate a unique, humane, and acerbic voice. Highly recommended.