The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

Life is Crappy, But What Are You Going to Do, Right?

Scott Wrobel
Cul de Sac: stories
(Sententia Books, April 2012)

A fundamental argument of a particular type of fiction is that life is crappy. Scott Wrobel’s story collection Cul de Sac is a first-rate defense of this perennial thesis. Wrobel begins with the classical premises of disease and death, then summons a veritable cornucopia of crap, including, but not limited to: racism, bigotry, alcoholism, family dysfunction, morbid obesity, and Disney World. But are our surrounding structures and culture to blame for this crappiness? Or is it the unthinking individual who brings the crap down upon himself? Perhaps it’s just the nature of human life itself? In his rigorous and systematic examination, Wrobel points his finger at a wide swath of root causes, and all defendants are found guilty. Yet, Wrobel tells his stories with such humor and grace that one feels oddly uplifted by their relentlessly unflattering depictions of Midwestern cul-de-sac life. In this way, he becomes a Fiction Hero—he has looked at life in the face, squared himself against confusion and suffering, and transmuted the experience into something worthwhile, even beautiful.

Wrobel tells the story of a bunch of “regular guys” living in a “third-ring suburb” of Minneapolis, circa 1998. We move from Doug’s story (his wife loses the baby and gets cancer on the same day) next door to meet Byron (and his 550-pound wife, Betty), then across the way to see things through the eyes of Wes, the social worker. Particular emphasis is given to Gary Wiegard, the anti-hero. We begin to see a world of interwoven perspectives, or of conditioned co-production; in other words, we’re all spinning this damned web together. Next to the table of contents there’s even an overhead picture of the cul-de-sac, which Wrobel informs us means, in literal French, “the bottom of the bag.”

The cycle of stories brings certain recurring motifs to the foreground. The figure of the coyote appears often. Wes dreams he is the coyote lurking at the cul-de-sac’s edges, feasting on foxes. He researches the animal’s role in Native American culture as a trickster figure, then circulates stories to the neighbors about the coyote eating a local dog. Later, we learn that Gary identifies as Wile E. Coyote from the cartoon, firmly establishing him as the book’s central rogue. Then there’s Snoopy. Wes, who supports his son’s family on his social worker’s salary, has a theory on Snoopy: “I never respected Snoopy. Admired for his puckishness, the dog is pure laziness, round belly swelled with sloth and indolence, dependent on the feedings of others, instincts dulled by a full dog dish.” Later, Wes tells his son, “Back to your hole. ... We’ll have your dish out for you in the morning.” But it’s not just cartoon characters that bind these stories together. It’s an entire culture of Coleman Power Washers and Chipotle, of scrapbooking and insulin injectors, of A.D.H.D. and cancer.

The life-as-crap idea is reminiscent of Raymond Carver and his lineage. Carver’s images are depressing; any light and love in his stories was apparently edited out by Gordon Lish. What remains is the brutal truth, stripped of all consolation, and Wrobel works in this vein. From the collection’s first story, “Motor Repair”:

Ken’s in the middle of this outpatient treatment program with a bunch of other court-ordered drunks because six weeks ago he got off his shift at the hospital where he works as a lead maintenance technician, had too many beers at an Applebee’s bar, drove his Harley Heritage Softail into a row of mailboxes, and ended up concussed on some guy’s driveway. Then he went to jail for a night, lost his license, entered an outpatient treatment program, and during the admission physical he got diagnosed with diabetes. It’s like he went into one of those magician’s disappearing boxes but the trick backfired and he came out with feet growing from his skull.

Like all great stories, the ones in this collection only get worse. So whether the subject is provincial racism or anti-gay bigotry, they are even worse than you think they will be. Drunk, racist Gordie is dead-set on keeping an African-American family from moving in next door, in order to “keep property values up across the black,” as he says inadvertently. He sabotages his neighbor’s house by pissing on his patio. When Peter Wiegard suffers through an agonizing holiday dinner at home before finally coming out to his family, nobody really even hears him. They simply cannot compute.

As Fiction Hero, Wrobel also battles the false distortions of “Hallmark TV.” So as Gary watches his father die, we don’t get sugar-coated platitudes such as, “It just feels right, son. No more pain.” There is, rather, the hard, boiled-down, dirty-realist truth. Gary says, “The biggest lesson I learned from my dad’s deathbed scene: people about to die still care about what’s on TV.” This line can be read as darkly cynical, but in it there is also a sweet tone of sympathy. We do care about what is on TV, all the way up to the bitter end. And Gary manages to get the ballgame on for his ailing pop, although he laments that they could only get the Minnesota Twins vs. Tampa Bay Devil Rays game, rather than a more “historic rival”: “For Dad’s last game…we got the fucking Devil Rays. Life is bullshit, and so is death.”

So where is the uplift among all the unpleasantness? The humor and grace amidst the crap? It’s tucked away where it should be, in moments, in smiles. Wes’s relationship with his granddaughter Jennifer, “the only kid who doesn’t kill me with needs,” is touching. Meanwhile, Peter Wiegard does find a way to fully express himself at the story’s end, simply by sponging down the kitchen counter. And even our anti-hero has his moments. After Gary and his wife Liz are called into school because their seven-year-old son Danny is drawing pictures of penises in art class, Gary slips a picture of “a yellow coyote with an erect pecker riding a unicycle” into Liz’s scrapbooking bin—to make her smile when she sees it. These stories will bring about the same kind of ironic, knowing smiles to anyone’s face. Cul de Sac is an excellent read for chuckles in the darkness because, in the end, it is funny just how crappy life is.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues