Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Ottawa author Paul Carlucci has a knack for turning the ugly into the fascinating. In his second collection of short stories, A Plea for Constant Motion, he does just that—at least for most of the stories. In all fairness Carlucci's latest book is a mixed bag.
There are two exceptional stories in the collection: “Rag” and “These Rats Have a Job To Do.” In the first, the grime of the re-proletarianization of Canada's industrial workers comes through with a vengeance. Nicky, once a well-paid steel worker, sees himself as a loser and succumbs to anger and violence. On the other hand, Giuseppe, his co-worker in a window-washing crew, is building a nice nest egg on the same salary—one on his way down, the other climbing the social ladder, a typical Canadian story. Nicky plays Giuseppe with a sob story about not being able to meet child support payments. He is indeed short of money but for a very different reason. The kind-hearted Giuseppe agrees to a loan of $250. When the money goes immediately missing on a job, suspicion falls on Robbie, the rough-around-the-edges newbie in the crew. Nicky broods all day over how to get back the money and then makes his move.
In contrast to the steely masculine point of view in “Rag,” “These Rats Have a Job To Do” is related through the innocent eyes of Bev. a young teenager. Her father has split, leaving behind a demented wife and his two daughters to fend for themselves. Bills are piling up, and things are getting desperate, especially after Sissy, Bev's older sister, has a baby. Sissy puts Bev to work as a babysitter for their neighbour, Colleen Chester. There is history between Sissy and Colleen, and Colleen's husband who is doing time is part of it. It is not the babysitting money that Sissy wants from the arrangement. Innocent Bev becomes a tool for Sissy to get what she really wants. Despite being treated callously by both her sister and new employer, the young girl finds time for youthful infatuation and even a rather flawed first love.
Much of Carlucci's writing is reminiscent of the work of Russell Wangersky. Both skillfully portray ordinary people rubbing against hard times or beset by loss and disillusionment, although with Carlucci, the other-side-of-the-tracks theme plays a larger role. Carlucci's writing at times appears unsettled, disrupted by experimentation that does not always hit its mark. Such is the case for “Dream of a Better Self,” a very dark but disappointing dystopian story, which nonetheless will send shivers down the readers' spines with its unexpected ending.
Several of Carlucci's stories take his readers from Canada to Africa and back. There is a sense of strong disillusionment in the Africa stories, which contain a dark thread of sexual exploitation and moral corruption. “Way Down the Mercy Hole” is the best example of this in the collection. Admittedly, it was not a story that I liked at first reading, but during a second pass, I came to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into it. This dark tale is told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl, Ramona, who finds herself dragged off to Zambia by her godmother after the murder of her grandmother. The godmother, Ms. Bacon, is seeking redemption by volunteering the two of them for missionary work with an association for the disabled. When the godmother falls victim to an extended bout of malaria, Ramona is confronted with the corruption and debauchery of their hosts, and experiences her own loss of innocence in a small act of retaliation.
Paul Carlucci is a writer to watch.
A Plea for Constant Motion is published by House of Anansi.