Cul de Sac: Stories
by Scott Wrobel
Sententia Books, 2012
978-0-9833790-1-5, 232 pp., $14.95
Wrobel's collection Cul de Sac is new publisher Sententia Books' second title, and he does his publisher proud. Chief editor Paula Bomer couldn't have chosen a collection more akin to her own style: the twisted domestic. The fathers at the center of Cul de Sac and the female perspectives in Bomer's Baby & Other Stories could easily be marketed as a packaged deal. These are authors who confess unapologetically what families think about themselves, each other, and the institution from which they cannot escape.
Cul de Sac opens with a "slimy smile" of sorts, a lie in a community welcome guide that reads, "Well cared-for homes tell a positive story about a neighborhood." Conformity cannot be achieved behind those closed, well-cared-for doors. A "Cul de Map" indicates the home of each father, a device that gives the collection coherence. The book is a neighborhood essentially, one in which I invested like a member. In "Motor Repair," Ken watches Gary power washing his home, admiring the bold machine and essentially ignoring his own problematic family. But Gary and other characters move in and out of the stories like dolls mobilized in a doll house. The "Cul de Map" is brilliant in its simplicity as a narrative tool.
The collection reveals men who, typically left out of their own stories, need saving, reassurance, and options other than those stereotypes provide. In "After the Lovin'," Byron cares for a wife who is 550+ pounds, but whom he can't help love. What was unique to me were the truly "masculine" descriptions: "Betty smiled back, oxygen tubes roping from her nose like snot strings. Betty uses the air tubes during the day and an industrial-strength breathing machine at night that slams oxygen into her lungs like an air compressor with enough force to blast the stain off of a fence." But Byron imagines being saved by his childhood hero, Engelbert Humperdinck, who takes Byron's hand and walks him, like a little boy, into the sunset.
Gary attends a "carnival fun-fest" with his family. Children kick off their shoes and are set loose into huge inflatable structures. Wife Liz appears less-than-fearful as her four-year-old son disappears into "the Mega Obstacle Challenge." Wrobel gives his father significance not seen today (notice how stupid fathers are in commericals) when Gary compares the children's shoe pile to those in Auschwitz and threatens to storm the play area to find his son. Yet, fathers aren't overly romanticized to the point of unbelieveable. When the son returns, Gary admits, "[He] wanted to break into tears and hug his boy and at the same time he wanted to tell him to go fuck himself for not appreciating the work he and his mom went him through to get him to Fun-Fest...."
In an age when fathers play larger roles in their children's lives than ever before, I'm surprised I haven't read a male version of domesticity. Wrobel captures specifically male details and desires (just search for the phrase, "then that mayonnaise jar is going to get raped") while filling men with personality. Because men are portrayed as workers, drinkers, and sports fanatics, but never fathers, I haven't had access to them in fiction, but Wrobel breathes to life these men with a profound sense of importance.—Melanie Page