Witty novel takes readers deep into grocery store territory

Joan Sullivan
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Taking Stock
By Scott Bartlett
Mirth Publishing
364 pages  $14.99

Sheldon Mason is at the nadir of his young life. His mother has died, he’s broke, jobless, creatively drained as an aspiring writer, and socially isolated. Suicide seems the only viable option, so he prepares to hang himself.

As he hesitates during the process, he is interrupted by his upstairs neighbour, Sam.

Sam brings him to the hospital, where he not only visits him regularly, but arranges for Sheldon to work at the local grocery store, Spend Easy.

To his surprise, Sheldon likes the work, even takes pride in figuring out better ways to accomplish his assigned tasks. His turf is Grocery, as opposed to Meat or Produce, and opposed is the right word as the interactions between departments verge on an uneasy detente regards status and resources.

He is also intrigued by the Spend Easy staff, including Gilbert, handsome and a slacker; Tommy, who believes the tabloid predictions that the sun will explode after Christmas; Cassandra, the cashier who broke his heart in high school, twice; and Frank, the manager who can’t look at anybody in the eye, but prefers to see the world through security camera footage.

The details of working in a grocery store seem authentic and are truly interesting — fronting, watching the required safety videos, shifting stock. Same with the routine and characters in the hospital. The story moves between flashbacks to Sheldon’s stay there, and his present-day of Spend Easy, with his visits with Sam, slowly expanding network of friends, and a return to the writing he abandoned at the death of his mother.

Bartlett’s writing has an effortless originality. For example, in high school Sheldon “felt like a book with the covers ripped off.” Bartlett can also be very funny. On his first shift, Paul, another employee, tells Sheldon he’d like to write a novel, set in the grocery store;

For some reason, this really irritates me.

“What, you mean Spend Easy?”

“Maybe. I think it could be good.”

“What would the conflict be?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“The characters need to want something. What would they want? Food?”

And the stakes get nicely and consistently raised. First, there’s Sheldon’s own struggle to regain some emotional and psychological equilibrium. At first, work seems one avenue, but something seems awry at Spend Easy. Some of the employees and managers are easy-going and dedicated, but others are oddly territorial, even confrontational. Personal relationships begin to crisscross a lot of lines. One night, someone locks Sheldon in the freezer. Was that just a prank?

Making new friends — about the first he’s ever had — helps, too.

But are there are secrets and hazards here as well. As Sheldon learns, people, even ones you’ve known for a long time, are not always what they seem.

Bartlett continues with the inventive, energetic promise he showed in his first novel, “Royal Flush.” Here he adds a growing maturity and artfulness as a writer. “Taking Stock” is a great read.

Telling Truths: Storying Motherhood

Edited by Sheena Wilson and Diana Davidson

Demeter Press

325 pages  $34.95

These 38 creative non-fiction pieces include memoir, essays and more literary formats, like short stories.

There are all kinds of mothers: young, unmarried, lesbian, stepmothers, transgender, adoptive, alienated, foster, grandmothers taking in grandchildren, estranged.

And even a mother of two or three is a different mother to each child. Many are gripping reports from the front lines of accident, illness, poverty, divorce, abuse, addiction. (One, “Goodbye, Girl,” is from a N.L. writer, Leslie Vryenhoek.)

“Our Dead Fish,” by M. Elizabeth Sargent is understated and hilarious:

Our second grader, Hannah, named the fish, although she solicited Molly’s approval for the name first. Hannah had recently filled out a form for school which asked “Child’s name?” She had written “Hannah,” as we would have expected. The form then asked, “Name child likes to be called?”–and she had written “Debbie.” That had been news to us and to the teacher. But so it was that Hannah decided to call the fish Debbie. (I shall continue to refer to Debbie as “he,” however, not only to register my conviction that Debbie was no lady, but also to distinguish him from my daughters.)

“Late Born,” by Faye Hansen is delicately heartbreaking:

 

A daycare worker reports that Daniel and Mary arrived around two that afternoon, as they do most days. “They’re usually the last to be picked up,” she states, in a flat accusatory tone.

“How can this be?” I wonder, knowing that Daniel is enrolled in full day kindergarten. “Where are their backpacks?” I ask and hear that they come unencumbered by sweaters or snacks or a special toy. They come to me with nothing, given over to my care without a qualm. No permission slip required.

Those brief excerpts give some suggestion of the range here — as the theme itself is, of course, something of a motherlode.

Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist, author and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly.

Her column returns Sept. 20.

Organizations: The Newfoundland Quarterly

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