Leon Rooke Cathleen Hoskins - Essay

Cathleen Hoskins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Fat Woman] Rooke gave us a strong dose of the macabre mixed with rollicking humor. Now, in his excellent collection of stories, Death Suite, he has upped the ante on the macabre. According to Rooke, life is a risky business, walking uncomfortably close to death. This ambivalent chumminess is the crux of his vision.

Not surprisingly, the opening story is set in a funeral home. Mama Tuddi, a tacky television personality, puts in a guest appearance at a young fan's funeral. The event slowly swerves out of control, and Mama Tuddi finds herself caught up in as fine a crew of gospel shouters as any preacher could hope for. Rooke's hotshot black humor is a tour de force in Mama Tuddi Done Over (and in several other stories), but he never wastes his considerable comic sense simply to get laughs. His humor is like a searchlight freezing a criminal against a prison wall—in a single flash it can illuminate life's most sinister shadows. (p. 58)

Some of the stories offer no comic relief at all. Two of the strangest focus on the charged sexuality of adolescence. Sixteen-Year-Old Susan March Confesses to the Innocent Murder of All the Devious Strangers Who Would Drag Her Down is an obsessional monologue describing a beautiful girl's love for an unwary stranger. The piece is so steamy, breathless and overwhelming that, like drowning, there's the constant urge to come up for air. Rooke tosses off superb imagery with the largess of a king dispensing gold coins….

In comparison, Deer Trails in Tzityonyana is more rarefied, understated and, finally, sinister…. The Gothic tale of sexual initiation is strung as tautly as a baroque melody.

In Death Suite, Rooke is best at his blackest. Stories such as Winter Is Lovely, Isn't Summer Hell and The Problem Shop, which offer an upbeat optimism, seem flabby with sentiment in the company of the other, darker tales. But when he's staring down the bleaker mysteries of life, Rooke is an exceptional storyteller. Then, like a knife in the stomach, his work is hard to ignore. (p. 59)

Cathleen Hoskins, "Laughter Trimmed in Basic Black," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1982 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 95, No. 2, January 11, 1982, pp. 58-9.