A Review of Eva Crocker's Barrelling Forward
Review by Krista Foss
Eva Crocker’s characters occupy a grubby liminality: they are new teachers in draughty apartments, would-be models sleeping in junkyards, and post-tryout athletes awakening to desire. They are distracted students with creepy landlords, old waiters hiding illness, young siblings fleeing loss and new parents girding against it. Everything in their world is precarious: employment, sex, fidelity, agency, sobriety and survival.
Which helps make Crocker’s debut short story collection, Barrelling Forward, hard to put down and harder to forget when you do.
Over 14 stories that take us from locations around St. John’s to a jerry-rigged loft in Montreal, and from pre-audition preparations in a Toronto hotel room to a short escapade in Brooklyn, the author treats her flirting-with-the-margins characters with clarity and tenderness. These are Ashleys, Anthonys, Reginas and Shawnas for whom the wishful prescription – Make good choices! – is both wasted breath and misapprehension. Because in Crocker’s stories, choice takes a backseat to bad luck and windfalls, inevitability and the compulsion to keep moving. And she explores such momentum with a spare, sharp prose that wrings meaning from tableaux and settings.
In “The Lodge,” a father shows up to his son Liam’s new apartment carrying curtains in a Sobey’s bag, a gift from the boy’s mother. He’s hardly inside the door when he encounters a barefoot stranger emerging from the shower, wet hair staining his t-shirt collar, a man his son introduces as Trent, a friend helping him move.
In the ensuing scene, the three men stand in Liam’s chair-less kitchen eating their breakfast eggs awkwardly, as the father describes a problem with beavers flooding and contaminating the pond near his cabin. Trent responds with an outdoorsman’s understanding, and this instance of kinship, eclipsing the question of who he is to Liam, is choreographed rather than verbalized: ““Really?” Liam’s father was excited. He moved over by Trent and laid his plate on the counter too, just centimeters from Trent’s. The two men’s hips were practically touching, their elbows almost brushing together as they moved their utensils.” With a few quiet sentences, here as in other stories, Crocker’s characters become constellations of bodies collapsing towards and away from each other, always in flux.
In “Dealing with Infestation,” the first of the collection, new teacher Francis contends with a draughty apartment, a disturbing rash and a growing interest in Patricia, the gym teacher who needs his support for a political situation at the school. After admitting he may have infected her, Francis invites Patricia and her dog up to his apartment. This leads to a short-lived, but powerful tableau – Patricia cradling her dog’s head in her lap, sitting across from Francis while the coffee table between them holds coffee mugs and a half-empty bottle of scabies cream. It’s stealthily funny, but also packed with information about this would-be couple’s layered negotiations: Francis giving to Patricia something he didn’t want to, and Patricia asking for something she’s unlikely to get.
Throughout the collection, Crocker telegraphs her characters’ interiority through the concrete —empty margarine containers, abrasive bathroom cleansers, a pet turtle’s plastic castle —and images that burn with precision and vividness. In “Full Body Experience,” aerobics instructor Regina and Elinor, the new hire at her gym, are drunk and making out in Regina’s apartment, the one her boyfriend Chris would visit before he died in a car accident Regina survived. At the pitch of their lovemaking, Regina hears a draught caught in the closet, and “empty coat hangers knocking elbows.” An instant later, Elinor’s platinum hair looks like “the foamy aftermath of a winter wave sliding over wet sand.” For Regina, the oblivion of sex is ephemeral, while grief remains rooted in her body.
The title story, “Barrelling Forward,” comes at the end of this collection and you can see why: it brings together everything Crocker does so well. After the death of their alcoholic mother, Shawna’s older brother Kyle insists they start a new life together in Montreal, arriving just as student protests disrupt the city. As Kyle runs headlong into the legacy he’s trying to escape, Shawna thinks wistfully of a kid she’d been tutoring before they left Newfoundland, the orderliness of the math they’d worked on implying a different future and momentum. Through these siblings, Crocker explores the dimensions of vulnerability. “I can’t get warm,” Shawna tells her brother at one point, though it’s a hot Montreal summer. When Kyle slings a protective arm around her, he unknowingly condemns his sister to a kind of purgatory; she will be cared for without being understood or even kept safe.