The Father of Octopus Wrestling by Frankie McMillan
I love the quirky wide-ranging scope of this collection of short stories. It is not often that you can travel so widely in a collection of short fiction. Within a few pages you can stand alongside Miss Nebraska 1963, visit Russia on several occasions, go to Anne Frank’s house, farm ostriches and have swans swim through your lounge, not to mention contemplate octopus wrestling for possibly the first time in your life.
Some of the stories make you laugh, others make you slightly uncomfortable at the hint of horrors or abuses. One of my favorites is called ‘The man who saved the world gives the teachings of the trolley bus’. The narrator confesses to Stanislav that he has a condition, a kind of wavering that means he cannot make a simple decision. The response is swift. “Just then we heard the trolley bus. The great rattle of wheels. Stanislav gripped me from behind, pushing me roughly onto the tracks.
As the big bus loomed over me, I heard him yell. ‘Still having trouble deciding what to do comrade?’”
I had to resort to Google to find out who Stanislav Petrov was, and it turns out he did indeed save the world, when in 1983 the Russian nuclear early-warning system he was in charge of told him that the USA had launched missiles against Russia. He kept calm and did not retaliate, believing the warning to be a software glitch. He thereby prevented a potential nuclear conflict from escalating.
In ‘The bride from Clarry’s Vineyard’ we enter the world of wedding cake makers. In particular, the need to be sure that when taking the order you know the sex of the two parties getting married, and hence the correct gender of plastic figure on the top of the cake. As brides begin to place rings on their own fingers, the question emerges of what to do with all the redundant plastic bridegrooms.
The former Miss Nebraska 1963 turns up in three different stories, but in the first she is on stage in a tight trouser suit waiting for the judges and having dirty thoughts about her religious teacher. Because the competition is sponsored by the Meat Union, she is holding half a meat carcass in her arms, hoping it won’t drip blood on her shoes. The little details are memorable.
Perhaps the most bizarre story in the collection is called ‘Jesus and the ostriches’. I won’t say too much, other than to mention the wife’s disappointment; in the honeymoon suite of a Rotorua hotel, three days after their wedding, she is told that her husband’s mother is coming to live with them. Ostrich farming and Jesus will come later.
This is a beautifully designed and made book. From the deep purple cover to the tactile black pages that mark the start of each new section, to a late surprise which was to see that the titles of each story are printed in dark blue ink rather than black. Something I would not have noticed unless I has happened to be holding the book in front of a window one morning. All this adds to the sense of novelty that runs through the collection.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Canterbury University Press. RRP $27.99