Grab Bag is two collections of interconnected stories, or perhaps vignettes would be a more accurate term. McCormack’s impressionistic style makes it difficult to provide a meaningful plot summary, but I’ll try. The first section, “Dark Rides,” is set in a backwater Canadian town in the 1950s. Teenager Derek works at a carnival, poses as a scarecrow in a haunted cornfield for Halloween, struggles over a history report, and other normal-for-the-era activities. But Derek is gay, and must also endure harassment at school, plus risk exposure when a doctor suspects his secret and sends him for aversion therapy.
The second part, “Wish Book,” seems to be set during the Depression. The narrator, a young gay man, has a number of unusual experiences: reporting on livestock at a fair, being the “Living X-Ray” in a sideshow (he is very thin from having TB), sculpting cheap carnival prizes, and serving as a hospital attendant, a cake decorator, and an elf answering kids’ letters to Santa. But plot isn’t the book’s strong point. McCormack is skilled at vivid, punchy imagery: “The sky looked like an eye shadow sample. Black. Plum. Pink.” He likes short sentences and spares the verbs, producing a fast read. Several stories share themes of Halloween, carnivals, and disease, giving the book a dark, Gothic tone. There are several sex scenes.
Readers expecting conventional narrative fiction should look elsewhere. But like modern art aficionados who think representational paintings are boring, adventurous readers will find rewards in this acclaimed Canadian author’s work.