You know what’s the worst? Being really excited about a book and then being disappointed when you actually read it. Alas, such was my experience with the debut short story collection Barrelling Forward, by Newfoundland writer Eva Crocker. The weird thing is is that everything about this book was really setting me up to love it.
First of all, both Zoe Whittall and Heather O’Neill have glowing blurbs on the back cover. I LOVE both of their writing and would consider one of their endorsements a big selling point, let alone both of them for one book! Second, I was excited about Barrelling Forward since it was the publication that led to Eva Crocker being shortlisted for this year’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize (an award for emerging LGBTQ Canadian writers). Third, the descriptions of the book sound exactly like the kind of stuff I love: a focus on the everyday and mundane, featuring ordinary people. The publisher’s blurb got me really excited:
Financial uncertainty leads to interpersonal insecurity as an assortment of youthful protagonists navigate the everyday challenges of life — and making a living — on the island. What happens when the man interviewing you for a job takes you on a date to see a hypnotist? How do you get rid of a psychosomatic case of bedbugs? What’s the best way to get rid of a beaver dam? How do you tell someone you just started seeing that you didn’t know you had scabies when you hooked up? In the Cuffer Prize–winning story, “Skin and Mud,” two boys have an intimate encounter as they wander through the barrens one day after school. Barrelling Forward is packed with unforgettable characters, vibrant humour, and acute insight into the overwhelming anxieties of new adults living their lives in the midst of a crumbling old economy.
Doesn’t it sound awesome? Aw man, I’m sad all over again that I didn’t really like this book. The thing is, there’s actually a lot to admire in Barrelling Forward. It has some lovely understated writing, well drawn characters, and many interesting moments. The characters felt very real, messy, and complex. Crocker doesn’t flinch in her portrayals, whether it’s a creepy landlord hitting on one of his tenants who’s late on her rent, a young feminine gay guy dealing with his macho dad, or an aerobics instructor dealing with the death of the boyfriend she didn’t really love anymore. The descriptions are crisp and minimalist, elucidating lovely, clear images of familiar feeling east coast locales and people (who are mostly twenty-something and middle aged working class Newfoundlanders).
My problem is that none of the stories had a narrative arc or tension. I LOVE short stories that are snapshots of everyday life. I could read them all day. But the writer has to add significance or the stories fall flat. As I said, the stories had really interesting characters and moments; but they didn’t have interesting stories. The ending of every story felt abrupt and arbitrary. Abrupt endings can be a really effective tool when used intentionally, but in this collection it felt more like each ending was simply a random cutting off point, for no particular rhyme or reason. The abruptness didn’t add anything to the story, nor did it feel deliberate. Each time a story ended, I found myself asking, “Is that it?” and “But where was the story?” I was left feeling unfulfilled, like I needed more of each story for it to make sense as a narrative, and simultaneously exhausted by the end of the collection and wanting it to be over. In short: the stories felt incomplete. It probably would have been less frustrating if I hadn’t liked so many other aspects of the book! And I probably would have been more generous with some of the later stories if I hadn’t been feeling so exasperated near the end.
I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on Eva Crocker’s work in the future. But for now, I have complicated feelings about this book. Has anyone else read Barrelling Forward? If you read and liked it, I’d be especially interested in hearing your thoughts!