You know, some books just come with really high expectations. When I began compiling an end-of-year list (started here and here on Facebook and continued here on this blog), I deliberately avoided including a “worst-five books I read this year” list; instead, I called the more negative side of my summary the “top-five disappointments of the year”, i.e. books that arrived on my nightstand with a high level of expectation and, while not necessarily bad (although some definitely were), for whatever reason came up short or left me wanting.
Neil Smith’s short story collection Bang Crunch had the potential of ending up on this year’s list. I had heard and read so much about this book before cracking its covers, knew its short stories had been widely anthologized and won prizes even before they were collected together, and that everyone who read the book had, as the saying goes, loved it loved it. Could it possibly live up to so much hype?
Rest assured that it absolutely does. Bang Crunch is a tour-de-force and Smith is the real friggin’ deal.
The collection opens with the story “Isolettes”, a hilarious and heart-wrenching story of a young woman and her gay male friend who have a child together that ends up being born prematurely. The account of the baby’s time in intensive care reminded me a lot of Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” for all the right reasons: that feeling of helplessness that a parent feels when an unwarranted illness inflicts itself on a defenseless child, counterbalanced with strong, fully realized characters and insightful writing.
Smith tackles a number of other heady subject matters, including cancer, alcoholism, a school shooting, and a young man discovering his own unwelcome homosexuality. (Did anyone else find that Ruby-Doo in “Green Florescent Protein” had a certain Owen Meany quality to him?) The final piece, a novella called “Jaybird”, is a wonderfully polished and honest look at the Montreal acting scene. Even the weakest piece, the title story, still gave me lots to chew on and admire.
With Bang Crunch, Smith stakes out his territory as one of the freshest and most original voices to come along in a long while. I’ll be waiting with breathy anticipation – like so many other people, I ‘m sure – for his next book, whatever it may be. I have a feeling I’ll be following this writer wherever he goes.