In Southern Ontario, somewhere just beyond the Greater Toronto Area, sits The Pump, or rather sinks The Pump—its buildings and inhabitants knee-deep in the muck of poverty and marshland—a fictional small town and the titular focus of Sydney Warner Brooman’s debut short story collection, The Pump. Published by Invisible Publishing in Fall, 2021, The Pump follows the Southwestern Ontario Gothic tradition of Alice Munro, exposing the warped underside of small-town Ontario through a series of interconnected short stories. Characters duck from one story into the next, giving the sense that this is in fact a novel told through a collection of literary snapshots, that we the readers are merely visitors in this town, passing through.
Where Brooman differs from Munro, however, is in their depiction of the suffering of The Pump’s inhabitants. Darkly surreal and unblinkingly violent, this suffering manifests as a group of blood-thirsty beavers that live in The Marshes on the outskirts of town, feasting on unsuspecting hikers and occasionally showing up outside bedroom windows, on the front steps of Town Hall, and behind back doors. As Brooman themself has proclaimed on Twitter, this is “the one where the beavers eat people.”
Notable stories are “The Bottom,” in which a girl goes on a brutal beaver-hunting excursion with her father; “Vellum,” in which this same girl reappears as a teenager, suffering from a painful and deadly skin condition; “Mal Aux Dents,” a perfect blend of grief and humour, reflecting in its tone the impossible contradictions of being Christian and gay in small-town Ontario; and “Life Giver,” which reveals the blunt reality of the boundaries of human connection, illustrating how something repeated, though preventable, like a community’s bad water supply, lacks sensation, novelty, and individuality, and as a result does not inspire the empathy required to fix the problem. Hulking at the edges of Brooman’s writing are the dark limits of human consideration, the blunt borders of our ability to care.
The Pump is strange, no doubt, but it is delicious in its strangeness. Brooman conjures twisted, Ontario-specific fairy tales, more brutal than the Grimm originals. Slipping repeatedly into fantasy, the mysterious geographical locale of The Pump is a space where fable becomes reality and urban legend confirmed fact. In The Pump, the most accurate details are the most unbelievable—and the most atrocious. More than just a coincidental reflection, the inhabitants of The Pump become their surroundings. In “I Can Outrun You, Too!” Brooman describes one of the townspeople as having “sunken wrists and tired cheeks—teeth a little big for her mouth,” (69) details reminiscent of the beavers stalking The Marshes. In The Pump, barriers between the external world and the internal self disintegrate. Landscape seeps into the deep part of bone.
Furthermore, Brooman doesn’t shy from the omnipresent residue of intergenerational trauma. Father to son, wife to husband, friend to friend, and lover to lover: the characters’ stories leak into each other just as the town’s toxic water supply leaks into its inhabitants. Everyone knows one another, and everyone, in a sense, is one another; in the deeply stained and suffocating chamber of shared heritage, these people remain helpless beneath forces verging on the supernatural. A heavy weight of inevitability holds them down, as overwhelming and affecting as Brooman’s sharp, unapologetic prose. Brooman scratches open Southern Ontario’s scabs and reveals that, though hidden, these wounds haven’t been healing—they’ve merely been spawning pus beneath the surface.
Where larger cities face corruption, The Pump faces a different kind of rot. This town plays by its own rules: sexism, homophobia, ill-health, and ritual—the fatigue of poverty, the violence of boredom, and an insular stuck-ness as thick as the mud on the putrefying ground. Brooman creates a separate, entombed world, where the gases emitted from The Marshes and the chatter of the beavers ricochet back against the sky. Surely, there is no escaping The Pump.
Erica McKeen (she/her) is a Canadian fiction writer. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, longlisted for the Guernica Prize, and shortlisted for The Malahat Review Open Season Awards. She is the recipient of a Canada Council for the Arts Research and Creation grant, and her debut novel, Tear, is forthcoming from Invisible Publishing.