Updated Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 02:47 PM
“Better Living Through Plastic Explosives”
by Zsuzsi Gartner
Pintail, 224 pp., $16
You will see a quirkier side of Vancouver, B.C., in Zsuzsi Gartner’s hilariously twisted short-story collection, “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives,” than the average visitor does while window shopping on Robson Street, strolling through Stanley Park or picking over artisan treats on Granville Island.
The fictional peculiarities of Gartner’s Vancouver (and there are many) make this gorgeous city and its residents seem like something out of a David Lynch movie — with a Seinfeld-esque comic absurdism thrown in.
In the opening story, “Summer of the Flesh Eater,” a suburban cul-de-sac full of uppity vegetarians and locavores is turned inside out when a rugged new neighbor moves in one day wearing a muscle shirt, tight denim cutoffs and a mullet. The first thing he wheels out of the U-Haul is a massive barbecue grill. Later, a beat-up old pickup appears on blocks in his front yard, an affront to the eyes as well as the studied refinement practiced by everyone else in the neighborhood. They nickname him The Truck Guy and look down on him as some late-arriving Neanderthal. Still, they deign to invite him to a group dinner one night.
These are the kind of people whose house parties feature things like lamb Popsicles and ampoules filled with wild-morel cream that you can squirt into your mouth. They send their children to Urbane Kids Cook! classes. The Truck Guy, on the other hand, is a no-nonsense carnivore and pokes fun at the preciousness around him at every opportunity. Needless to say, his neighbors fail to appreciate his macho-man humor.
The Truck Guy, who’s single and strapping, promises to show the women in the group how a real meal is done and invites the couples to a barbecue at his place, featuring all manner of meat. That’s when this oddball clash of cultures takes a delicious and fantastical turn. Just guess who all the wives wind up gravitating to after experiencing the pleasures of The Truck Guy’s perfectly grilled flesh?
A nutty, Darwinian mind trip for the reader ensues as the desperate househusbands grapple with the lost allure of their own supposedly evolved manhood.
Gartner uses absurdism to great effect in the wildly different but equally class-conscious story “Floating Like a Goat,” in which a mother writes an amazingly condescending and outright insulting letter to her first-grade daughter’s art teacher — because the teacher had the nerve to question the little girl’s talent. But is it really more about the mother’s own life choices and dashed bohemian dreams?
With Vancouver’s people and stunning natural beauty as her primary muses, in these 10 stories Gartner dreams up all sorts of memorable bits, from luxury hillside homes mysteriously sliding into oblivion to a couple uttering sweet nothings to each other in the Swedish lingo of Ikea products to a killer of motivational speakers to a “recovering terrorist” who likes to garden.
What we end up with isn’t just a nutty and inventive depiction Gartner’s home base but a piercing exploration of human ethics, ambition and folly. For such a funny writer, this is serious stuff.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.