||Growing Up in Rural Hell
by Jessica Lara Ticktin
With three volumes of poetry under her belt, one of which was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award (Hometown, 1991), Laura Lush slips out of the role of poet and dons the garb of short story writer. Lush grew up in Brantford Ontario. Her protagonist, Grace, is a troubled, bored teen stuck in rural hell. She yearns to feel passionately about something; to seek out meaning beyond the borders of her limited existence. While the writer tackles the familiar ground of a young girl's life, her distinct approach to the subject matter, and to the genre itself, is fresh and engaging.
The stories in "Going to the Zoo" begin with Grace on the cusp of puberty, and chronologically follow her life up until she's in her late thirties.
Unsure of her place in the world, Grace is not as assertive or defiant as her younger sister George; she tries to do the right thing, helping defend or support the members of her dysfunctional family. Grace's mother, a nervous, highstrung woman, fails to cope when her husband on a whim moves the family out of the suburbs to a farm in rural Ontario. Grace finds solace in nature, a solace not so much from the peace or tranquility, but from its thriving, non-human world with its own chaos and order.
Lush is at her best when writing about nature¨whether in poems or short stories, from dogs to rats to orangutans¨her writing is luminous, arresting in its ability to bare the truth of a moment. One of the best stories in this collection is taken from a poem she wrote in her first collection, "Hometown" here entitled "Worm Girl". Grace drives around in an old Wonderbread truck, selling live bait for her pathetic, slimy boss, Bob. "I like the way they move between my fingers," Grace observes, "twisting and writhing as if they were trying to tell me something, as if they were trying to rub some dark, primal secret off onto my hands." It is in the cooler with the worms that Grace lures her first boy, confident with her mantra of hook, snag, reel.
"Rat Tails" tells the story about the family's move to a farm, her mother's obsession with rats and her father's endless optimism and determination to be a farmer, despite his inexperience. With vivid strokes and quirky humour, Lush captures the family's struggles in the rural setting. In one brilliant scene, Grace's mother, having no more rats to worry about suddenly takes up refrigerating: "She defrosts the freezer, spending hours with her head immersed in the angel-blue air, chiseling frozen shank steaks and what looks to be the left-overs of Neopolitian ice cream with a screwdriver and knife, Goddamnyou. Goddamnyou." Later, after Grace has taken inventory and cleaned the whole thing out, her mother says with a disapproving 'tsk', "It lacks soul."
It is in the first half of the book that Lush succeeds beautifully¨taking the domestic realm, and family life in a small town, where the mundane is rendered fascinating, intriguing¨unraveling hidden truths in details that we, as readers, are happily left to mull over.
The second half of the book, which takes the well worn path of the single woman in a string of dead-end relationships with penchant for troubled souls, is noticeably weaker. I grew weary of Grace in the last section, "The Evangelists of Erotica", wanting to hear more of her younger voice¨recounting her scrapes through life with her family in Southern Ontario. In stories such as "Shooters", "Heaven is a Vacuum" and "Jeopardy" Lush's writing becomes duller, as if mirroring the dullness of Grace's humdrum, uninspiring life.
One of the most engaging aspects of these stories is their rich cast of characters, such as Horrible Harv the WWF wrestler, father of one of Grace's school girl friends, the Poodle Lady who becomes Grace's psychiatrist and Harry the Eunuch, Grace's "client" at the Happy Hearts Hostess Club in Japan. These peripheral characters showcase Lush's creativity and enable her to articulate her humour; the characters are never one dimensional, always funny, their stories poignant. Lush succeeds in this foray into short-story writing because she still writes with the sensibility of a poet; she gives us careful, subtle refrains, moments caught in butterfly net¨moments of beauty punctuating the suffocating greyness of Grace's life. ˛