Note: author now goes by Sydney Hegele
“Who’s ready to earn their beaver badge?” (20)
The brutal enchantment of old-world folktales meets the mundane horrors of small-town Ontario in Sydney Hegele’s debut story collection The Pump. With a fast-paced plot and haunting style, Hegele takes the reader on a journey through a small town known as The Pump, a landscape of distorted Canadiana, replete with tainted water, mutant beavers, and dead Boy Scouts.
Like a fabulist coming-of-age narrative, the collection’s interconnected stories wend their mostly young characters through a subtle passage of time. The reader is not so much invited as compelled to witness as the characters attempt to forge the meaningful connections that might save them from a small-town apathy that asks them to choose survival over love.
In “Mal aux Dents,” two queer church camp leaders find solace in each other’s mouths and try to pray their way out of The Pump. A young man mourns the loss of his best friend and bonds with an art-eater in “Danny Boy.” Impoverished and infected with a deadly rash that compels her to tear off her skin and write on it, Eloise reaches out to father, step-mother, brother, ex-girlfriend, and the mayor’s office in “The Bottom” and “Vellum,” only to discover who her true friends have been all along: “…we’re all from the same place we’re the same I can’t skin you we’re the same” (9). In other stories, Boy Scout songs and children’s games are turned into waking nightmares (“Grounders” continues to haunt me weeks later), proving how capable Hegele is at balancing their stories on a hellish tightrope between the mundane and the twisted magic that exists just around the corner in every small town.
For all their nightmarish elements, these stories and their characters shriek with raw honesty. We deeply feel the characters’ desperation, and we want someone—anyone!—to get out of this place that is slowly (and sometimes quickly) killing them, whether by disease, beaver, or suffocating homophobia. But most are trapped by poverty or habit, just as the reader is trapped by the urgent voices that reach out from the pages. “I felt like I was attached to The Pump by a shitty extension cord,” explains Jo in “Home,” “and if I tried to drift too far away, the universe would set me the fuck straight and zap the life out of me” (121).
Still, some stories, such as “Pelargonia,” a lurid reimagining of a Greek legend, push the boundaries of the collection’s fabulism a bit too far. The mythic quality of this story uncomfortably jostles up against the collection’s more realist and wonderfully realized bookends of the Prologue, the concluding story “Home,” and the Epilogue. These three stories tell of pregnant woman fleeing her abusive brother and the nonbinary child she gives birth to who manages to survive and find love in The Pump. What I admire about these particular stories is that Hegele doesn’t shirk from representing the mother in all her complexity as a survivor of incestuous abuse who later attempts to cajole her child into conversion therapy. (Rest assured, they do not go to conversion therapy.)
Hegele’s work has been compared to that of Alice Munro, and, for once, this comparison is accurate: Hegele is Munro through the looking-glass, and this collection is Southern Ontario Gothic queered and rabid. The Pump is edgy and precise, and Hegele’s daring style speaks to the skill of a writer who’s just getting started.
by Sydney Warner Brooman ( now Hegele)
Invisible Publishing, 2021, 144 pages
Erin Della Mattia is a writer and freelance editor from Brampton, Ontario. Her work has appeared in The Puritan and is forthcoming in the fairytale anthology Sharper Than Thorns (July 2022). Follow her on Twitter @ErinDellaMattia and Instagram @erindellamattia.editorial.