Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: Distillery Songs, by Mike Spry

The title and cover image of Mike Spry’s debut short story collection, Distillery Songs, leave one with the impression that this book is going to be about beer. Well, perhaps not beer itself, but those who drink it—tales of shambling men and women who drift from pub to pub getting into mischief, postulating on the universe, and trying to “make sense” of their odd and idiosyncratic lives.

Well thank God it’s not that kind of collection. Instead, what Spry has done is create a series of off-kilter tales that defy expectation and intoxicate us with their own unique constructions. On more than one occasion I found myself writing things like ‘oddly alluring’ or ‘bizarre, in a delightful way” in the margins of this book. Each story is the distillation of a weird concept, served up as a concoction meant to jar us.

Take, for example, his wonderful “Club Soda Unbridled”, a story about a couple who live and work together in a high-end hotel. Spry establishes a sense of repetition in the piece as the two lovers go about their respective chores in the hotel. There is a deliberate sense of elision here: we know that there is another story living beneath the surface of the story on the page, and yet we have a certain expectation as to what that might be. Spry surprises by turning his piece completely on its head by the end, creating a surprising burst of profundity.

Or take “Jesus of Thunder Bay.” In one sense, we know what to expect from this tale: a quirky exploration of what it might be like if the messiah ended up in isolated northern Ontario. But again, Spry plays with these expectations and finds ways to surprise his reader—not only with Jesus’ behaviour but also how his holy presence affects the other characters in the story.

While I did enjoy most of Distillery Songs, I did find that Spry would occasionally undermine his approaches with opening sentences consumed with the need to shock. These often come across as needless shoehorns to get inside narratives that would eventually reveal their inherent strangeness and Ballardian torque. Examples include the title story, which begins: “I once killed a two-fingered mitten salesman from Cleveland for half-fucking my wife.” Or “Five Pounds Short and Apologies to Nelson Algren”, which starts with “No one ever tells you not to fuck the monkey.” The worst example of this was the story “Emulsification”, which kicks off with:

Okay, there’s a Goddamn dead hooker named Crystal or Shelley or Raven or something duct taped to my couch and it’s one twenty-four in the afternoon and my notoriously punctual parents will be here for dinner at five-thirty and wouldn’t you know it I’m completely out of almonds and cumin …

This story reads like little more than an unconventional creative writing exercise: write the most outlandish opening you can and then reverse engineer the story to make it work. Spry does make it work, technically, but there is a certain soullessness to the final product.

Still, there’s no denying the power of this collection. Distillery Songs is a book comfortable with its own weirdness: these stories are not meant to be frothy pints of ale sipped slowly at the pub. They’re more like small, hard shots of whiskey—meant to be downed fast, and burn you behind the eyeballs.

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