Grab Bag / The Haunted Hillbilly by Derek McCormack

Zachary Houle

No wonder there's a skeleton on the front cover. The story is entirely bare bones.

Grab Bag

Publisher: Akashic Books
Length: 200
Price: $14.95 (US)
Author: Derek McCormack
US publication date: 2004-06

by Derek McCormack
ECW Press/misFit (Canada); Soft Skull Press (US)
September 2003, 124 pages, $18.95 (Canada)
September 2004, 112 pages, $11.95 (US)

by Zachary Houle

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Short And Bitter

Derek McCormack is a thirty-something author who has been talked about in almost reverential tones in Canada's hipster circles during the past five or so years. Bohemian men of a certain age (usually under 35) and geographic region (downtown Toronto) have been heralding McCormack as the Next Big Thing, particularly since his books come with a dusting of Bukowski-esque or Ellroy-ian grit of a sort that puts him in line with contemporary urban Can Lit themes these days. But even the mainstream media started to take notice of McCormack's rising star fairly early on, and have, in turn, handed over some real estate to critical appraisals of his work. A review of an early McCormack work in The Toronto Star -- technically Canada's largest newspaper circulation-wise -- went so far to say, "Anyone interested in the more wicked, crafty and inventive forms of Canadian writing would be well-advised to spend time with McCormack."

It's taken a few years, but the American underground is finally starting to catch up. You know you're a favored bauble of indie circles when filmmaker John Waters -- that guy who got famous for that '70s movie where the transvestite ate dog poop -- seals his approval in the blurbs for your book. In this case, it's Grab Bag, an American reprinting of McCormack's now-hard-to-find late-'90s novellas Dark Rides and Wish Book. Not wanting to be left behind, Soft Skull Press plans to ship McCormack's 2003 book The Haunted Hillbilly stateside this fall.

McCormack is an incredible stylist who uses minimalist prose and non-sequiturs to great effect, kind of like what A.M. Homes might write if she were a gay man. (McCormack has outed himself in the press, and writes almost exclusively about characters struggling with a sexual identity crisis.) His sentences are short and clipped. You know, in a see-Dick-run sort of way. Or, you know, Jack and Jill went up the hill. Subject verb object. Repeated ad nauseam.

Say what you will about his writing style, it really does a good job in tapping into the subconscious part of the reader. Since there's so little prose to go on, you have to fill in the blanks yourself. The comparisons to James Ellroy's latter-day novels are apt, but the good news is that here readers don't have to slog through 400-plus pages of beat jazz-poetry. The bad news? Well, it'll cost ya -- but I'll get to that later.

The Haunted Hillbilly, McCormack's most recent book, is a nice enough fictional retelling of the relationship (sexual and otherwise) between the late Hank Williams Senior and the late "Nudie" Cohn, the North Hollywood rodeo clothier famous for outfitting celebrities like Cher, Elvis and Gram Parsons. The casting of Nudie in Hillbilly as something of a fashion vampire makes for an interesting metaphor about, well, the things that are in people's closets -- which might not be clothes, if you catch the drift. It's a nice quick read for the bus ride home, but the book's over before it's even started. McCormack glosses over the relationships his characters have and flies through the years in telling his tale in the shortest amount of time possible. No wonder there's a skeleton on the front cover. The story is entirely bare bones.

Grab Bag -- part of cult gay author Dennis Cooper's ongoing Little House On The Bowery series for Brooklyn's Akashic Books -- is even more of a mix. The structure of the novellas within aren't quite so linear as Hillbilly, and the two books are really only linked thematically in that they're set in the same small town in the earlier half of the twentieth century. (In fact, the Dark Rides section itself was promoted in Canada as "a novel" made up of individual stories). The book is lopped into two fairly distinct halves, though they share some of McCormack's obvious stylistic trademarks. Hence the title -- it really is a grab bag.

While McCormack's style might be inventive, his work is marketed and priced in both countries like a novel, even though The Haunted Hillbilly runs slightly more than 100 pages and, at most, has roughly 20 lines of text on the page. This doesn't count page-long chapter cards and other inventive uses of white space. The whole thing, start to finish, took this reviewer just over a half-hour to read. Annoyingly, McCormack's publishers aren't the only guilty party when it comes to publishing short books at high prices. Don DeLillo's 2001 novella, The Body Artist, cost a whopping $22 US in hardcover from Scribner, and that's just another of quite a few examples of this thing going on at both the big and small publishing houses.

True, the economics of publishing more or less make pricing novellas through the roof a reality. However, it'd be nice for someone to figure out a way to publish these standalone stories without placing a huge financial burden on the reader. I hate to say it, but the price versus content issue makes me wonder just who McCormack is sleeping with in the publishing world considering that it's almost unheard of for a writer to exclusively publish novellas. This issue, unfortunately, simply overshadows the legitimacy of his work, which is a shame.

The obvious shock value and overt sexual guilt of these books makes me wonder, as well: is McCormack the real deal or just another attention-starved author? It's hard to say. He's only published three novellas over a six or seven-year period, and they're mostly about coming to grips about one's sexuality. (Is that code for the author's hidden feelings of victimization?) His word play is carefully considered, yet his characterizations feel hollow. It's as though he has something to say, but can't really express himself beyond the limited framework of a short story. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I'd almost prefer it were kept it to fiction magazines or short-story collections out of consideration for readers' wallets.

That all said, it's neat that McCormack sets his stories in an alternate rural setting during the '30s or '50s, and it's neat that this books recast old-timey country and western stars as gay role models. Aside from Williams, McCormack references forgotten rebels like Jimmie Rodgers, Buck Owens and Hank Snow, among others. McCormack is clearly trying to break the mold here, and he should be commended for that at least. Still, for those who are curious about these books, I would ultimately recommend ghosting on down to the nearest public library. The Haunted Hillbilly, in particular, might be about a bloodthirsty vampire, but given the book's page count, it feels like a pretty anemic excuse to blow money on.

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