I am not a fan of Christmas and haven’t been for a number of years, so feel free to call me a Scrooge. Many have. Despite that, I try as hard as I can to join in with my friends–sort of a “grin and bear it” attitude–because my mama raised me not to rain on the parades of others. Well, she hated Funny Girl, but you know what I mean. Singing carols, however, or listening to Christmas music on the radio, or decorating my car, or dressing up the dogs? Um. No. Just…no. And Christmas-themed books? Nope. Not going there, either. But I loved Kergan Edwards-Stout’s Songs for the New Depression so much that when he sent me this volume, I gritted my teeth and dove in, finding some pleasant surprises.
Not all the stories are Christmas related. They also revolve around Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and even Mardi Gras. And, as with most short story collections or anthologies, some entries are more successful than others. A few of these tales find themselves burdened with a sentimentality that doesn’t serve Edwards-Stout well. He’s at his best when he’s sharp and cutting, riding the edge to undercut the sweetness or the sadness, depending on how its played. That’s a combination that really works for him, and he manages to hit it more often than not.
He hits it hard in the opener, “The Nutcracker,” a biting piece about corporate ball-buster Sheila, whose mask of invulnerability drops when she receives the titular souvenir as a gag gift at the office Christmas party. The story is witty, observant, and altogether successful in its portrayal of office manners as well as career goals, and even though Sheila is easy to hate, she becomes a sympathetic figure by the end. This is the kind of story Edwards-Stout tells very, very well.
Going somewhere totally different, “Festive Beaver” is the lovely little tale about a young gayling and his fixation with his school’s Mardi Gras celebration. And again, the ending is particularly poignant and a wonderful lesson for any boy who has keenly felt the difference between himself and the rest of his friends. “The Stepping Stone” is an odd yet compelling Easter parable which finds shopping mall Easter Bunny Gerald taking a chance on winning his lady love Amy by defying his controlling mother. Edwards-Stout’s detailing of the Machiavellian control Lolly has over her son is exquisite and makes her comeuppance at the end (because you knew it was going to happen) even sweeter.
The family dynamic runs very close to the surface in all of these stories because holidays are so family-centered, something Edwards-Stout takes great advantage of in pieces like “Glenbourne, IL,” which features a mother-in-law finally giving her son’s patient and ever-attentive wife the respect she deserves after a number of years. This story takes a potentially maudlin situation but does not exploit that possibility. Instead, he concentrates on the relationship between the son and his wife and allows the reader to come to his own conclusions rather than forcing an obvious emotional choice. The ending, therefore, was to me even more heartwarming than I would have found it if I was told what to feel.
When Edwards-Stout takes this route, the results are stunning–as in “The Old Rugged Cross,” in which a woman is cut adrift from her life and her passion by the death of her only son, and the title story, which features a nicely-done twist. Not all of these stories are about gay men or women, but don’t let that stop you from picking up this fine volume of well-written pieces, most of which are powerful and emotional without the taint of cheap sentimentality that the holidays usually induce.
© 2013 Jerry L. Wheeler
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