Review by Lance Chess

Grab Bag
by Derek McCormack
(Akashic)

It's relatively rare, in for-profit publishing, to make a conscious effort to uplift and promote unappreciated talent. That is, however, just what cult author Dennis Cooper is doing with his Little House on the Bowery series. Cooper is compiling and magnifying works by "unappreciated" North American authors, giving them considerably higher profile promotion and distribution. Like Benjamin Weissman's Headless before it (in Cooper's series), Grab Bag, by Canadian author Derek McCormack, provides an entertaining, startling read.

Grab Bag consists of two books compiled into one volume. Dark Rides, the first, spins a creepy, Western, homoerotic, molest-or-be-molested tale of a kid obsessed with Hank Williams, the wandering lives of cowboys and honky-tonk wish fulfillment. McCormack's prose in Dark Rides effectively transports you to distant autumn nights where shivers, beer breath, and the smoke of burning leaves linger on forever. His best feat here is his juxtaposing of legends that become ghosts with distant, traumatic hillbilly high school memories, which, for sheer psychiatric well-being, are permanently shrouded in a fog of youthful denial.

Wish Book, the second in the duo, is set in the same town, only this time, in the post-depression 1930s. Like Dark Rides, Wish Book contrasts unseemly elements while making perfect sense to anyone willing to pay attention. For its shocking run, Wish Book first wanders through a '30s midway, well-stocked with sideshow freaks, grifters and carnies. This section is especially delectable, with enticingly accurate anachronisms and outlandish abominations galore. Wish Book finally winds its way down to the largest department store in town, Turnbull's, during a manic, over-decorated Christmas season. Much to its credit, this portion comes off something like a darker, more sinister Santaland Diaries, its sullied, garish garland guaranteeing group therapy for years to come.

Grab Bag manages at once to intrigue, horrify, and entice without being off-putting or annoying. It purveys a kind of graphic novel/comic book style of action and flow. Consistent with the previous works published in this series, Grab Bag engages the reader's personal imagination and curiosity without violating the boundaries of disbelief or cynicism.