George Who? A Review of Ross Wilcox's Golden Gate Jumpers Society
Ross Wilcox’s short story collection Golden Gate Jumper Survivors Society is filled with a wonderful collection of quirky, sad, yet funny outcasts who yearn for communion with an increasingly isolationist world. The first story which shares the book’s title provides an extreme example of the themes of alienation which course through this entire absurdist work. Victor is the president of the Survivor’s Society who after failing in his attempt at suicide has decided to devote his entire life to saving others. He spends his days patrolling the Golden Gate Bridge on the lookout for fellow jumpers and holds a pristine record for never having anyone succeed on his watch. Victor’s evenings and social life are taken up by the Society and in which the collective members occupy their time by engaging in Aquatic Jumping Simulation Exercises at the Y. That is, until a new member named Bonnie shows up. Bonnie, whom Victor suspects of having never actually attempted a jump, is elected their new president, and even converts their alternative suicide activity into Yoga Jumping Simulation Exercises. The conflict between Victor and Bonnie and her clique intensifies further until the story concludes in an unexpected, yet satisfying manner.
The small town setting in “Year of Our Lawn,” would at first appear to be the polar opposite of the one in the “Survivors Society.” This absurdist story, which reminded me of George Saunder’s short story “Tenth of December” begins when the Porters decide to upgrade their lawn by decorating it with statues of animals which are clothed to look like some local merchants. This inspires a “friendly” neighborhood competition in which the neighbors try to outdo each other with increasingly elaborate lawn decorations. “It was if we were watching ourselves on television, or viewing a movie about our town, albeit one acted out by animals. The Foals and Shedds could point at the deer and the black bears and say ‘That’s us!’ And all the while as we cheered, in our own heads, we envisioned our own yards, imagined what animals and what scenes would look best brought to life on our own lawns.” As the various homeowners’ landscapes take on increasingly expensive and ridiculous iterations, an ever widening darkness comes to pervade both the story and the formerly nice little town. “”It was as if people were saying through their lawn scenes what they really felt about one another, that the lawn scenes were bringing to the surface a surreptitious bitterness that had always been there.” It is such realizations that the reader comes to equally understand the true nature of this town’s and humanity’s own less than stellar qualities which often underlie our surface natures.
The voices and characters in this entire story collection are disparate and wide ranging. In “Backwater,” Wilcox writes from the perspective of a teenage girl whose parents are splitting up as a result of her mother’s affair with a yoga instructor and in “Puddin’s Suitcase,” he voices a gay man whose act of digging up his elderly aunt’s pet poodle for reinternment helps him to disinter his own sexuality.
My favorite story in this strong group of stories was “Nora’s Sweatshirt.” This appears at first to be merely an amusing recounting about a group of adolescents in South Dakota who fill their idle hours smoking pot and drinking beer in a remote country setting. Wilcox, like he does so well in almost every story here, has a much different agenda for his western versions of Wayne and Garth. Instead of “party on, dude,” these teens’ carefree and substance besotted lives are transformed when they meet a mysterious shopkeeper whose revelations about another boy like themselves will alter both their lives and perspectives forever.
The darkest comedic episode contained her is titled “Ransom.” Here we meet a group of apparently normal suburban adolescents (although by this time we know that nothing is ever truly apparent or normal in Wilcox World) who befriend a new boy at their school named Jacob Carbunkle. This character’s name immediately brought me back to when I was a young teenager and a devotee of MAD Magazine and the ridiculous, but beloved Carbunkle cartoon character. As for this Carbunkle character it seems that his parents are professional kidnappers and he has no qualms about sharing the intricacies of what his family’s profession entails. When one of the kids asked why they can’t come over to his house for a visit, Jacob responds,” Because my parents are always home now. They won’t let me have anyone over when we’ve got a kid in the basement.” Very creepy stuff, but when taken in the real overall absurdist context in which it is offered, also very funny. Sick funny, maybe, but still hilarious.
In addition to these fine and fully rendered stories there are additional and almost equally good ones including “Broken Vessel” about a woman who helps pay for her elderly mother’s care by robbing banks, “Oliver Weston GBV” in which a young dude has his own imaginary TV show, “Of Small Account,” where a couple 3-D print their own little family, and several more which I will save for your own enjoyable discovery. The bottom line here is that whatever they come to call the next great generation of short story writers (Covidial’s?) will find themselves compared to Ross Wilcox instead of that other guy whatshisname.