Reviewed by Chris Vola
Last century, the Suburban-American literary canon found itself equally embellished and scuffed by a succession of chroniclers—the most obvious being Cheever and Updike—bent on digging under the well-manicured fingernails of their hedge-trimmer-and-cocktail-dress milieu. Amidst the post-war plentitude, where cheap gas, a white-shingled starter home perched on 1.5 grassy acres, and 2.5 smiling, freckled kids were considered undeniable rights, they found a decidedly unnerving undercurrent of psychological instability, infidelity, and a flighty malaise unique to the whitebread set. The promises of a perfect future bestowed upon a generation already given much were reduced to a mire of resentment and unfulfilled potential, a feeling Carver so succinctly defined: "Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from." But what of that generation's children and their progeny? What effect have the ensuing years of financial boom and unrest, terror-fueled paranoia and homeland (in)security, cell phones and Internet porn had on those now-proverbial tree-lined streets? Scott Wrobel's debut story collection Cul De Sac is a fresh, haunting rendering of this familiar-seeming microcosm, one where things can't possibly get any worse—even when they do.
Cul De Sac's eleven stories focus on several men living on the same eponymous dead-end street in a newish development in Minnesota that could easily pass for Anywhere, USA. The power-washer-loving denizens of this Baby Boomer/Gen X Winesburg are the same aging, stone-faced specters one sees at the grocery store every day, the ones who look way too normal to be normal, who have got to be up to something when the garage door electronically shuts behind their SUVs at the end of the day. And the men of "the 'Sac" seldom disappoint. There's Ken, a homophobic diabetic with a DWI and an unloved, ADD-afflicted son; Byron, whose weird fascination with Engelbert Humperdinck trumps his ambivalent care for Betty, his 550-pound wife; and Wesley, devising a scheme to break from the mundane chaos of his social worker job, his cold marriage, and the 40-year-old weedhead son (who lives in Wesley's basement with his own wife and children), so that he can run wild as an honest-to-god coyote, or maybe just to steal a few moments of quiet solitude. The book's final six stories are devoted to "The Ballad of Gary Wiegard," a rotund construction business owner whose evolution from anxious parent to numb junkie is the most glaring example of the woeful mantra gnawing, to some extent, at all the men: That age does not beget ripeness, and with the creep of years comes only a gathering of disappointments and absurd tragedies, nuisances for children—Gary refers to the "alien biological lifeform" in his wife's pregnant belly—who grow from screaming brats to sullen underachievers, and spouses emotionally deadened, either by their husbands, or by forces outside their husbands' control. Or, as Gary opines, "Life is bullshit, and so is death. That's also a thing I learned."
If that all sounds ridiculously depressing, it is. What makes the book readable (and ultimately extraordinary) lies in the characters' resigning themselves to a reality that at times feels "too much like a scene in a Sunday night movie" sans the MGM ending, and in doing so, embracing the blackly comic aspects of their lives with a wit that is as deadpan as it is hilarious. When mortgage company executive Gordy's drunken plan to stop his neighbor Doug from selling his home to a black couple results in him soiling Doug's carpet and himself, his son uses a power washer to subdue him. Byron, weighed down by memories of a crappy childhood and his constant duties as caregiver to his immobile wife (whose legs resemble the meat slabs "Rocky punched when he trained"), transforms the unsavory components of his life into oddly endearing cartoon ghouls on the fringe of the personal fantasy world he's created:
Last night as usual when I got home from work around six, I'd slouched into Betty's room and kissed her pasty forehead, pasty because she sweated prescription drugs through her skull. I also injected chemicals into her body every day and filled her with pills and food. She ate too much sugar and always yelled from the bedroom, "Bring me cake, Byron, goddamnit!"
Byron can go back to pretending to be a mustachioed pop star. Cul De Sac is rife with moments like this, the characters twisting the bleakly inevitable into quasi-lighthearted observations before returning to a state of self-sustaining self-absorption. The freedom to calmly shirk and withdraw is surely one of the 'Sac's gravitationally attractive elements for its residents, and a source of pleasing and constantly revolving complexity for the reader.
The flow of unassuming guy-speak amidst a Denny's-and-gas-station landscape of neatly trimmed and polished details hides a neverending succession of unforeseen twists as wicked as a sudden tumor diagnosis. The best stories in Cul De Sac are the first-person stories, a perspective reserved for the most outwardly gruff and colorful characters, the ones who, like would-be-coyote Wesley, try to trick their way out of the sadness that has been built around them. Or, like Gary, who cannot shirk the too-tough-for-the-street routine even in moments where tenderness should flow openly, a refusal that elicits a subtle, yet no less poignant emotional tug: "The clouds look like clouds. If Dad were looking down on me—which he's not—he wouldn't like to see me crying. It's a safety issue. Wear your protective goggles, never drink before work…and keep your personal life out of the house you're working on." Wrobel has created a world that demands to be winced at, but also to be explored again and again, a testament to the power of the empathy that exists underneath the layers of forced detachment. And for me, that's the best kind of world.