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Don’t judge this by its cover — it’s much better

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This disarming, technically accomplished debut short-story collection by a former Manitoban will survive its atrocious cover, as did David Bergen’s Sitting Opposite My Brother.

Coach House Books is a venerable Toronto publishing house, with a reputation for its craft printing as well as cutting-edge writing, such as Winnipeg poet Jonathan Ball’s cr latest collection, The Politics of Knives .

So it’s too bad about Cosmo’s eyesore of a cover, because people often do judge a book that way, and Thompson native Spencer Gordon deserves a wide readership for this first book.

Cosmo is as good as several of the best literary collections released this past fall, though it reads more like an updated version of Winnipegger David Arnason’s 1982 collection Fifty Stories and a Piece of Advice , but adding the influence of Americans David Foster Wallace to that of Donald Barthelme, both of whom Gordon cites.

Gordon, now based in Toronto, is clearly gifted with an active imagination. He also has a thorough understanding and appreciation for popular culture and — based on these stories — an ability to place readers inside the heads of Matthew McConaughey, Leonard Cohen, a Miley Cyrus stalker, a porn stud in decline and a mass shooter.

Pop culture is as much a minefield as it is a treasure trove of characters. Such material is often made interesting only because of the volume of broadcast and social media coverage pandering to a voyeuristic public.

But Gordon finds what matters in his exploration of one of the widest varieties of psyches you are likely to come across in short fiction.

The collection opens with two strong stories. The first, Operation Smile, concerns a young beauty pageant competitor on a field trip to a hospital ship where she is anxious about falling.

The second, Jobbers, the best story of the bunch, focuses on journeymen wrestlers. Young Eddy has suffered head trauma and has many mental health issues. But he is lovingly cared for by his teenage big sister until one of her stunts to keep Eddy occupied during a house party goes horribly wrong.

Of course, there is usually a reservation when praising a first book. Cosmo feels sometimes like a combination of finger exercises and studies for a creative writing workshop, with a little "watch me" thrown in.

Gordon gets away with it, especially in his story about a down-on-his-luck Cohen proposing a radical marketing idea for a sandwich joint. It is very funny.

And don’t forget his story in the voice of singer Miley Cyrus’s stalker, related in one 3,000-word sentence. This has been done before — American Michael Chabon tries it in one chapter in his new novel Telegraph Hill — but Gordon makes it his own.

The stories in Cosmo are well imagined, with characters we end up caring about, the writing is vigorous and energetic and the collection well edited. Here’s hoping it’s also well read, despite that cover.

Victor Enns is a Winnipeg writer and poet.

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