In his essay “The Monster Mash,” David Sedaris recalls, as a child, repeatedly exhuming the bodies of dead hamsters and guinea pigs. His motivation for grave-robbing? A genuine aesthetic interest in what his dead pets’ corpses looked like in various stages of decay. As gruesome that sounds, adolescent fascination with death is, as Sedaris points out, not all that uncommon. “At that age, death is something that happens only to animals and grandparents, and studying it is like a science project, the good kind that doesn’t involve homework.”
A similar unshackled attitude about death is at work in Laura Boudreau’s debut short story collection, Suitable Precautions. Most of Boudreau’s characters’ lives have been shaped by the deaths of others, the operative word here being “others.” Death, in Suitable Precautions, happens to a father we barely knew, the former owner of our house that we never met, the drowning victim we read about remotely in a newspaper account. In this way, Boudreau employs death as a deceptively simple foil; her characters come alive because they are not dead. And rather than use the abundance of death in her stories to create a dark or morose ambiance, she does the exact opposite. Like a child who inevitably finds a way to amuse herself at a funeral parlour, Boudreau’s writing is playful and oftentimes fearless.
“The Dead Dad Game,” which won the 2009 PRISM International Short Fiction Contest and was included in the 2010 Journey Prize Anthology, practically laughs at death with its title alone. Told from the point of view of a child, Elaine, who has barely any memories of her deceased father, “The Dead Dad Game” takes shattered lives and makes playthings of the pieces. In “The D and D Report” (the “D and D” standing for “Dead and Deader”), a pool manager keeps his lifeguards alert to potential dangers on the job by “bringing in articles about people dying, or almost dying, in swimming pools, usually after doing something stupid.” One such D and D Report serves as fodder for a persuasive personal essay that one of the lifeguards writes as part of a successful application to medical school; one person’s death improves another person’s life. Adolescent Luke, in “Way Back Road,” is surrounded by death, stuck at a funeral with relatives and neighbours only too happy to offer up morbid counsel and anecdotes. Though worse tragedies abound, Luke’s main concern is evading the avenging fists of the bully Shel. When Shel crumbles in the face of his own personal misfortune, Luke resolves to stop being afraid, of Shel and of dying.
Laura Boudreau writes with an uncomplicated style and displays a penchant for creating moments that are simultaneously weird and tender. In “The Vosmak Genealogy,” Dora, while scouting a psychiatric facility for her ailing mother, recounts “I remember seeing a man in a paper gown masturbating in the hallway. We stayed for lunch.” In the excellent “Poses,” Boudreau captures all the swagger and confidence of a precocious twelve-year old girl who, in her own mind at least, knows what the hell she’s doing. “I can tell you that by the time I’m seventeen, I’m not going to be slicing salami for picky moms in stretch pants.” We are happily lured by this child’s wise and hopeful tone, the seemingly limitless possibilities before her, right up until the story’s final, piercing sentence. Here, Boudreau proves to be a master of manipulation.
Laura Boudreau’s first offering is an excellent, memorable debut. And for a short story collection so full of death, Suitable Precautions is indisputably alive.
Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Something Important and Delicate” won the 2010 3Macs carte blanche Prize.