Reviewed in this essay: Poison Shy by Stacey Madden. ECW Press, 2012.
Sex, bugs, and schizophrenia form an unlikely trinity, it is true. And yet they converge with surprising semblance in Stacey Madden’s first novel, Poison Shy. Told through first-person retrospective narration, Poison Shy is the story of a love triangle between two heavy-drinking late twenty-something males and the object of their desire. Our narrator, Brandon Galloway, and his gruff competition, Darcy Sands, pursue a wildcat party girl undergrad named Melanie.
The narrative is set in the fictional town of Frayne, “a blue-collar nowheresville in southern Ontario,” a place Brandon understandably despises, yet lacks the energy or sense to desert. Faintly evoking the helplessness and existential malaise of Gregor Samsa—the human-sized dung beetle of Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis”—Brandon gets hired as an exterminator for Kill ‘Em All Pest Control, and picks up the nickname “Bug Man.” He kills vermin by day and chases Melanie by night, although his revulsion for her promiscuity oftentimes outweighs his desire.
Most of the story’s action revolves around The Bloody Paw, a local dive bar known for its display of portraits showing tortured animals and an obliterating signature cocktail with the descriptive name “The Adios Motherfucker”. Peripheral to Brandon’s compulsive pursuit of Melanie is his schizophrenic mother and flashbacks to his frenzied childhood. In turn, his personal narration draws implicit links between the “crazy” women in his life and with his own fear of descending into insanity.
Poison Shy offers various axioms, from Oscar Wilde’s pithy reflections on truth, to Brandon’s assessment that “[t]he world is hostile and everything in it clashes,” yet, overall, these truisms lose traction with the novel’s plot-driven momentum. Like Kafka’s tale, forms of pestilence and insidious violence permeate Poison Shy, culminating in a scene of sexual trauma that is uncomfortably paired with a detective-drama, “whodunit” style of narration. Madden’s representation of women in the novel is similarly disconcerting insofar as his female characters are either lunatics, prostitutes, or fat girlfriends. Perhaps the narrow views of female sexuality are solely those of the narcissistic narrator, Brandon, whose hostile worldview extends to his relationships with women, yet even so, it is difficult to overlook the novel’s flattened representations of the feminine.
Madden’s novel leads the reader through sexual fantasies and encounters around the dead-end town of Frayne. Through this cross-hatched landscape of interior and exterior spaces, filth and moments of jouissance, Poison Shy attempts an existential mapping of desire and revulsion. If it does not quite succeed as a portrait of the modern day Kafkaesque, it nonetheless reminds us of the uglier faces of desire and the painful process of self-transformation.