Book review – (Straight white) men on the edge

2014-07-03 10:00

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Off-ramp by Gary Cummiskey

Dye Hard Press

140 pages


No one would willingly choose to be a character in one of Gary Cummiskey’s short stories, but reading about them is irresistible.

In Off-ramp, Cummiskey explores the inner worlds of (white) men on the very edge. Outwardly, they’re ordinary Joes living mundane lives, but that’s the very thing that makes them cauldrons of pent-up rage, heavy sexual frustration, thwarted ambition and neurosis. Two lose themselves in psychological blackout, leaving one to live out his paranoid life without ever finding out if he’s actually a murderer.

Absurdly, one finds himself in a farmhouse with a genial hostess – only for him and his wife to realise that each one assumed the other knew why they were there, but their hostess and her husband are in fact complete strangers and could be dangerous militants.

The men in these stories all fall victim to life’s vagaries in one way or another – each looking for something nebulous, invariably thwarted in their ill-defined search for it. Cummiskey is brutal in his exploration of frustrated (straight) male sexuality in a world with complex women – from bullying, anhedonic wives, to the merest hint of what a woman glimpsed in a park may actually be like, to a prostitute who can fulfil almost any fantasy except one, which ultimately drives one customer insane.

Often set in a Joburg full of social and historical fracturing – with race wars merely forming the backdrop from time to time – this was a bit like some of Raymond Carver’s wilder short stories: full of madness, booze and the kind of sexuality that wouldn’t translate in any way to a Nicholas Sparks movie poster.

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