In her first collection of short stories, Nancy Jo Cullen displays her talent for creating distinct characters and blessing them with the same insecurities that haunt the rest of us. Although each has their own unique personality, one commonality among all of the characters in this collection is their acquiescence to despair. From the despondent waitress/dancer to the widower whose dead wife’s ashes ride shotgun wherever he goes, it seems that each of these characters has surrendered to the oppressive hopelessness that smothers their existence. Sure, there are some glimmers of optimism here and there: The sullen teenage girl who feels invisible gets an ego boost when her older cousin rubs his hard-on against her during a consensual albeit ill-advised make-out session; A recently divorced woman achieves a sense of vindication through having all of her pubic hair waxed off and then hurling a rock through her ex-wife’s window.
However these characters identify, whoever they love (or don’t love), this book is filled with tension, desolation, and dreams that, upon being realized, don’t turn out to be so dreamy. Each of these characters aches to escape, to transcend. In “Happy Birthday”, a woman who describes her marriage to her wife as a carcass they are dragging behind them takes a night’s reprieve from motherhood and wifehood by walking out on her demented mother’s 83rd birthday party and hitchhiking to Banff. In “The 14th Week in Ordinary Time”, another tale of making-do, a closeted gay husband and a wife who would prefer to not sleep with him anyways break their celibacy in an attempt to conceive.
Situated primarily in British Columbia, many of these stories are set in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the music of that time is often utilized to set the tone. The era’s song lyrics are woven into the narrative like musical pathetic fallacy. The stories are all sort in length, averaging about 16 pages each. They move at a good pace that keeps you anticipating what fresh socially-awkward hell these poor people will find themselves in next. The stories in this collection expose something that we can all relate to: The myriad ways in which other people disappoint us, and the futility with which we attempt to reconcile this disappointment with our innate optimism. These characters pull their terrible circumstances around their shoulders like an itchy wool blanket, and try to garner warmth despite the excruciating discomfort.