Pink calfskin gloves nuzzle a human foot inside a shoebox grave. A cancer survivor happens upon an unlikely cause for his condition. A teenager mourning his dead father discovers, by degrees and to his violent horror, that he is gay. In the process of putting on the performance of his life, an up-and-coming actor unwittingly bids a tenuous career adieu. Welcome to Bang Crunch, the quirky debut of Montreal-based author Neil Smith, where a palpable sadness reigns. This short-story collection is less a landmark than a promising portent of more meaningful work to come. Its contents come off as disparate MFA assignments, alternately flip hip and creakingly formal, revelatory and predictable.
"Extremities" cuts back and forth between the third-"person" exploits of a pair of high-end gloves and the first-"person" reminiscences of an astronaut's blown-off foot; circumstances eventually bring all three together. It's more showy perspective exercise than involving story, though the idea of a salty, tough-talking foot having designs on the late Christina McAuliffe is hilarious. "The B9ers" dabbles in surreal theory, arguing that, by some secret natural directive, kindhearted people absorb cancer-causing pollutants in order to spare the less considerate.
"Isolettes" finds Smith at his best and his worst. It's like a demented, scrubbed Will and Grace episode that artfully understates the parental gravity of its premise. Insular, commitment-phobe Ann and her gay, outgoing pal Jacob--their shared ironic-as-fuck salutation is "I don't love you"--artificially conceive a child born months ahead of schedule. "Isolettes" isn't an uplifting or original tale, and only one of the principal characters is changed in any significant way, but it's worth reading for Smith's dry-droll framing of the friendship and the sterile, alien nature of hospital rooms. "The incubators, a dozen aquariums, are not in neat rows, but here and there, the way progressive schoolteachers arrange desks," he writes. "Ventilators hum, monitors flash, alarms sound, a baby makes a noise like a gobbling turkey."