Bang Crunch: First fiction by Neil Smith
By Neil Smith. Knopf Canada, 244 pp, $29.95, hardcover.
Bang Crunch is exactly what I hope to find when I pick up one of Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction books: a preternaturally assured debut that makes me fall in love with fiction all over again. Montreal’s Neil Smith has done the rounds of literary magazines and anthologies; now, with his first collection of short stories, he’s poised to find a wider audience, and it couldn’t happen with a more deserving book.
The nine stories that make up Bang Crunch vary in plot, but they share a setting (Montreal) and a loneliness peculiar to big-city Cowardly Lions. “Isolettes” tells the story of An, a timid, unconventional woman pregnant by her gay friend Jacob. An (she keeps whittling down her name) is ambivalent about motherhood in the same way she’s wary of all forms of love: “She told Jacob she’d given up on relationships. Jacob insisted she’d never really given in to them. He likened her to a two-cigarette-a-day smoker who’d kicked the habit.” It’s no coincidence that An works as a translator, an intermediary; as she explains to her baby, she’d “always hoped to work at something creative. ”˜Drawing, writing, acting—I have a little talent,’ she says. ”˜But sometimes no talent is better. That way, you don’t even try.’”
Like An, the son in “The Butterfly Box” holds talent at arm’s length, working as an artist’s model instead of a painter. “The day Diane dumped my father, she said that if her love life were a meal Fred would be Melba toast—a flat, tasteless appetizer. So, with the muses disappearing, who stepped in to pose when it came time to paint?”
All of this would accrete into something depressing were it not for Smith’s deep humanism. The stories reach their apogee in the final entry, “Jaybird”, in which an actor fleeing his fear of mediocrity mentors a mysterious young woman. The closer Benoit gets to success—with women, on-stage—the more cut off he feels. Salvation arrives from the strangest source, only after the protagonist has submitted to the cleansing crucible of humiliation.