Atomic Road by Grant Buday is a speedy genre-bender with a woman problem. It melds the campus novel with a road-trip bromance, telling the story of vengeful academic Clement Greenberg, who travels with French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser across the Canadian prairies and the northern American states after Althusser murders his wife, and in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Greenberg hopes to persuade a contract killer travelling with them to kill his academic rival Harold Rosenberg once Althusser has been dispensed with. The writing is vivid and the novel propelled by fine descriptions of its historical settings. The narcissism of the two academics is satirized well in their blasé but extreme statements. Moments meant to humanize often reveal something monstrous, as when Greenberg has a pang of nostalgia for his estranged son, David: “Behold his offspring, a creature, a miracle of the most primal order, not to mention proof of his virility. A went into B and boom, C, his son was born—with a little help from what’s-her-name.” The characters are meant to be sexist and some details are factual. For example, Althusser did strangle his wife to death. Althusser’s severe mental illness (he had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) is, however, unfortunately flattened into a simple desire to be “free” of his wife’s oppressive love. The novel is at its best when describing a kind of ideological hurricane with an apocalyptic aesthetic that captures America facing the nuclear age. In many ways, Buday admirably crafts an argument that the rise of toxic masculinity is behind the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But the inequity of the treatment of women in the writing fails to provide needed counterbalance to the clever stylization of three intellectual men on a journey towards bodily death. Sometimes the descriptions of women are just dated, as when one is described as “shapely” or when others briefly appear to provide release. Other times the descriptions are grotesque: “Her complexion beneath the freckles resembled canned meat and he imagined her entire face sliding out of a can.” References to artists and thinkers famed for a kind of über-masculinity and/or as icons of Americana, such as Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, and Andrew Wyeth, frame the story within a dominant culture that figures women as outsiders or as sexual objects. This may be true of 1960s America, and even of the brutal coolness of some men in each other’s company. Nevertheless, without a foil, without an alternative vision of women, the sexism, which includes a real woman’s murder, is normalized.
Female anti-heroes drive the muscular empathy machine that is the short-story collection Don’t Tell Me What to Do by Dina Del Bucchia. These stories build empathy by relieving censure. In the title story, a young woman named Alex steals rolls of coins from one lover to leave another and attempt escape to an idealized memory of the West Edmonton Mall. As determined, calculating, cruel, anxious, and sad as Alex is, Del Bucchia manages compassion for her as someone being traded, while simultaneously rendering her victims (Gus and Robert, two older men, friends, who both want to install her as girlfriend in lives under renovation) human and able to be hurt. The ache of doing wrong, of lives not fitting for men and women both, is amplified by the hilarity of raunchy prose where things literally break all the time, skirts rip in change rooms, and furniture smashes during sex.
The settings are deep-fried in the familiar: bars, cubicles, funeral homes, basements, snowbanks; everything is cheap but nothing is cheapened. Del Bucchia’s misfits make deeply flawed plans; in one story, a woman tries to gift her way into her colleagues’ lives only to activate a deadly allergy to balloons, alienating the very people she wants to admire her. Del Bucchia’s emphasis on the distance between desire and outcomes dismantles the usual stereotypes of working-class people as hapless and ordinary or acting out of numb greed; from the child pressed into service at a beauty pageant, to a cult leader struggling to market the illusion of perfection, these brash stories conjure uncanny ripples of self-doubt, the unconfidence of the inner self. Del Bucchia’s debut is combative, compassionate comedy that amplifies and celebrates the failures of those who cannot cope with class and gender norms, nor be polite ad nauseam. As Kittany the cult leader says, “[m]aking a person loveable, herself included wasn’t as easy . . . [h]ow she appears, every selfie, every Snapchat, every statement she makes. They can’t be statements. That’s for politicians. She has to remain genuine.”