Elaine McCluskey’s debut collection contains ten comical and aggressively human slices of suburban life. From grocery aisles to strip-mall parking lots to school hallways and waiting rooms, these stories pulse with the bizarre and sometimes annoying trappings of in-between places and the people we encounter there.
In the title story a mother of two observes as the team of supermoms at her children’s school limps through the volunteer event of the season, propped up by Prozac and estrogen supplements. In “Strange Girls” a liberal couple attempts to understand their children, the children attempt to figure out where their parents went astray and everyone shuffles through the last few snows in a long Halifax winter. “Year of the Horse” features a lonely optimist who adds fictional elaborations to the life stories she edits for the obituaries page.
McCluskey is an avid observer of subcultures and demonstrates a feel for the style and micro-dialects they foster. From the “psychotically precious” Sailor Moon girls at a city high school and the last of the hosers, to a weight loss convention and the night crew at a small-town paper, this collection offers up highly specific cross-sections of North American lifestyles.
The stories in The Watermelon Social are as compassionate as they are pointed. When winter leeches into summer and your neighbourhood just doesn’t look like the ones on TV, it’s hard to hit your stride. McCluskey chalks the line that separates comfort and resentment, and locates that core of clichéd dreams and paralyzing insecurity in all of us. With deadpan humour, imaginative comparisons and the odd cosmic leap, The Watermelon Social gambols through the April slush.
“One day, I was in a grocery store with dented cans and day-old bread,” McCluskey says. “Above each cash register was a list of names under the heading Do Not Cash Cheques From These People. I was in line behind a heavy woman in sweatpants and a bulky top. She wanted to get change from her social services cheque, but the clerk told her she had to spend it all. The woman shuffled off and returned with a package of sticky buns. As she paused and caught a laboured breath, I saw the front of her top. ‘I’m Not Fat, I’m Fluffy,’ it declared over the picture of a large, splendid cat. When I started to write my short stories, I focused on the people who are rarely heard from in our society: poor people, fat people, suburban housewives and tormented teens. Occasionally, cats. I believe the Maritimes has its share of voiceless souls, trying to maintain their humor and dignity in a challenging world. As they make their way through life, they leave stories that are curious and amusing, triumphant and absurd.”
“Elaine McCluskey’s Watermelon Social is a slice of life every bit as juicy and mouthwatering as the title suggests. This debut collection of 10 short stories is a picnic of literary delights that serves up both the comedy and tragedy of the human condition.” Canadian Press