“EVA’S PLACE IS BUSIEST IN THE EVENINGS – lots of fried cheese and ass-grabbing near midnight.” So begins Rebecca Rosenblum’s fantastic first collection, Once, setting an exceptionally compelling tone that scarcely lets up throughout the book’s sixteen short stories.
Rosenblum is quick to captivate, her voice convivial and engaging. Her dialogue is authentic, often impeccable. Her deadpan pacing mesmerizes, resulting in amplification of the book’s several humorous and dramatic moments. So too, with her sneak-attack endings. Frequently, the only clue a story is wrapping up is the blank space at the bottom of a page; the eye perceives the approaching end before the mind does. A final sentence materializes out of nowhere and yet, once read, a more satisfying conclusion is difficult to imagine.
There is an enticing cheerfulness to Rosenblum’s prose that serves as an effective foil to the often bleak subject matter she explores. “Teyla was going to puke soon, or else go eat a sandwich.” Though disaster may be imminent, hope, or at least a sliver of it, is always somewhere in the vicinity.
Once is populated by convincing characters who live on the margins, inhabiting worlds of minimum wage employment in restaurants, hotels, bookstores, and fruit warehouses. Their livelihoods depend on city buses that are either late or don’t come, and when they do, don’t always stop. They squat in burned-out, abandoned houses in the suburbs. They take their morning Burger King croissants with a side of ketchup on a cup lid (is there, in truth, any other way to take a morning Burger King croissant?). Though these characters often lack power and control, they whine little and wallow less. Rather, they negotiate their tricky existences with intelligence and reason, shrewdly recognizing when to simply roll with the meagre hand they’ve been dealt, and when to wager on a measure of gratification. In this way, they manage to survive, and tolerate survival.
While Rosenblum’s stories are consistently strong, standouts include “Linh Lai” and “Chilly Girl”. Recently arrived in Canada from Viet Nam, Linh Lai navigates an unfamiliar landscape where she barely understands anybody and nobody understands her. Comfort, however, comes in her attempts to re-enact potentially neck-breaking stunts from her beloved action movies, or tricks performed by skate punks who loiter outside the restaurant where she waitresses. In the Journey Prize-shortlisted “Chilly Girl”, the title character’s hypersensitivity to cold sets the stage for an uplifting fairytale of awkwardness and seclusion.
The best story is “Wall of Sound”, in which high school dropout Jamesy teeters between two utterly disparate worlds. He lives violently in the aforementioned squat, hustling, squeegeeing, stealing, and drugging with Samir and Hart. Unlike his squatmates, however, Jamesy has maintained a connection with family: his blithely naïve, doting grandparents. During visits to their house, Jamesy helps out with yard work, is served bologna sandwiches and tea, and receives impromptu gifts of mixed tapes. Rosenblum is in top form here, demonstrating Jamesy’s ability to adapt to both situations while feeling at home in neither.
Winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award, Once is a tremendous debut. Rebecca Rosenblum has made an early mark rich with potential and promise.
Mark Paterson lives in Montreal and is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. While no stranger to fried cheese, he prefers morning ass-grabbing to the evening variety.