“Hayfields, churches, barns.” Derek McCormack just needs three words, and we’re driving down a lonely highway in rural Ontario. “Lips, nipples, navel.” Shorthand for the fumblings of forbidden lust, elsewhere condensed as “curled up in the backseat, clothes battered in sawdust and sweat.” Even at his most verbose, the Toronto-based writer lets his verbs play hooky: “Tex Ritter singing ‘Blood on the Saddle.’ Wood shavings on the floor.” Yet his cryptic, bare-bones style renders his taut stories full of creepy foreboding.
Two of McCormack’s novels—collections, really, of interconnected stories set in the same desolate town, and heretofore unpublished in the States—make up the Grab Bag omnibus. Both share a narrator—a closeted gay teenager named Derek McCormack—and a gleefully perverse fascination with carnivals, disease, and bodily fluids.
The first, Dark Rides, set in the 1950s, begins with the punchline of a tale told (per its title) “Backward.” Further stories sketch out the protagonist’s isolation as physical pain, actual illness. McCormack’s morbid wit keeps things from getting too grim, however. In “The History of Country Music,” the boy tries unsuccessfully to carve a jack-o’-lantern into a sex toy: “My hand slick with seeds. Slipped. My pinky split open. Skin peeled back over flesh and bone. I might’ve passed out.” In “Passing On,” a typically repressed teacher points to a prehistoric bacterium engulfing another as the first example of sexual intercourse. “Which sheds light on a lot of things,” the sickly Derek concludes. “Pneumonia. Gangrene. Atrophy. Putrefy. Corrupt. Different names for the same thing.”
Grab Bag‘s second part, a “catalogue of stories” titled Wish Book, goes back even further in McCormack’s fevered alternate history, to the Great Depression. His narrator now shares the spotlight with other ghostly characters. Freaks, con artists, beggars. Hucksters and carnies shake down the dirt-poor townsfolk. A sideshow barker and a sleazy newspaperman are just flip sides of the same trick coin. A cancerous teenager peddles toxic wonder cures door-to-door. An amateur psychic scans the obituaries for names of survivors, potential marks. Tumors, open sores, TB. And all the storylines weave in and out of Turnbull’s Department Store, the only one in downtown Peterborough, where Santa Claus employs the most wicked elf since David Sedaris left Macy’s.
McCormack enshrouds his terse prose in ersatz nostalgia that, like the carnival’s glittery chalkware prizes, revels in its hokey artifice. (The narrator is a teenager in the ’30s as well as in the ’50s, clearly no stand-in for the young author with no firsthand knowledge of either era.) But McCormack pulls off the trick, and this brief glimpse into his twisted imagination proves a rare treat. Weird, inventive, wonderful.