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Of monsters and men

Local author Andrew Hood delves into the gritty side of small-town Ontario in his debut short story collection Pardon Our Monsters

The title piece in Andrew Hood’s Pardon Our Monsters is arguably the most misanthropic story in what is an unabashedly misanthropic collection. The tale features a troubled adolescent protagonist who is picked on mercilessly by a pair of local bullies, the Miner brothers. The fraternal duo was once a trio, until Dennis, the middle Miner, was hit by a car and killed. Before Dennis’s death, the Miner boys were nothing but a group of wasters, bored small-town kids who amused themselves with name-calling, petty vandalism, and sexual harassment. After the accident, however, the surviving Miner boys are re-cast as heroes by the local townspeople. They are now the noble survivors of tragedy, and their newfound chivalric status gives them carte blanche to bully their peers without fear of reprimand.

While the townspeople openly proclaim their grief, the teenage narrator quietly contemplates his enduring hatred for Dennis Miner and his brothers. We are told that, although Dennis is treated as a martyr in death, in life “he was an all round irrefutable piece of shit.” Moreover, Dennis was a bicycle thief and, as it happens, he was riding the narrator’s beloved blue Raleigh when he was hit. For the narrator, the loss of the bike is the only legitimate tragedy associated with Dennis’s death.

Hood is a gritty, unapologetic 24-year-old writer, and he’s hell-bent on debunking nostalgic imaginings of small-town life. Many of Hood’s tales vaguely adhere to the classic coming-of-age formula, although they usually omit the final moment of revelation. They feature adolescent protagonists who struggle to make sense of a difficult world – a world of insincere friendships, schoolyard bullies, and freak road accidents. Even Hood’s adult characters are strikingly similar to their teenage counterparts in their social impotence and emotional immaturity. It is not surprising, therefore, that Hood’s younger protagonists are reluctant to grow up.

It is hard to determine where Hood stands in relation to his subjects. At times, their cynicism appears as a clear-eyed response to lousy circumstances, at other times it is shown to be self-defeating and silly. “The narrators in the stories are definitely lethargic people,” he says. “They’re slackers, and they’re unwilling to declare any clear intentions or take any risks. I think my writing is a celebration of that and maybe a condemnation as well.” Whether they’re compulsively masturbating, picking their noses in public, or longing for the affection of allegedly platonic friends, the characters’ flaws are, for Hood, what makes them interesting. “People are most endearing when they’re at their least guarded,” he says.

Hood’s preoccupation with malcontent slacker types earns him a fair amount of criticism. In a Toronto Star article last January, Ryan Bigge complained that Hood’s obsession with “adolescents and prepubescents” makes at least a few of his stories “feel overlong and irrelevant.” Admittedly, youthful angst can get a bit tiring after a while. But to pretend that teenage narratives are irrelevant to adults is to ignore the fact that adult life is informed by adolescent experiences.

Moreover, to charge Andrew Hood with childishness is to confuse the author with the subjects. Hood may be fascinated with immaturity, but he is hardly a novice writer. In “Chin Music,” a stoned teenaged protagonist offers a unique perspective on the great American pastime:

“In baseball, each team calmly ferrets out the solution to an argument through a kind of conversation, exchanging and communicating the ball all over the field…. For instance, if you strike out, you’re simply wrong, but if you manage an inside-the-park home run you’re right only because no one else could come up with a convincing rebuttal. One team ultimately makes a better argument than the other, and so the game is won.”

Passages like this set Hood apart. His offhand observations have the precision and lucidity that one generally expects from older writers, but his sarcasm and pop culture suaveness reminds us that he hasn’t lost touch with an adolescent mindset.

Hood views youth as an asset. He believes that readers have higher expectations of older authors. “A book I wrote when I was 24 won’t be judged next to Love in the Time of Cholera,” he says, and he’s right. Reviews of Pardon Our Monsters are generally complimentary. Moreover, his critics tend to attribute his flaws to inexperience rather than a lack of talent. They frequently express hope that Hood will “grow” over the years.

Personally, I like Andrew Hood the way he is. He experiments eagerly with adjectives and alliteration, and he isn’t afraid to screw up. I enjoy the all-or-nothing cynicism and youthful recklessness of his stories. In many ways, youth defines and enhances his writing. But, then again, growing up is inevitable. For better or for worse.

Andrew Hood’s Pardon Our Monsters (160 pages) is available for $17.95 from Vehicule Press.