Commercial Fiction

By Dave Housley


November 2013


Reviewed by Patrick Crerand


Dave Housley's Commercial Fiction reads like the Leo Burnett Agency's greatest wet dream and worst nightmare: the extras of the commercial world have been given their chance to veer off script and voice their own moments of joy, pain, and indifference. In these eighteen short fictions titled after the products at whose commercials Housley has taken aim, what results is risky, out of the ordinary, and so slick that we slip and hit our heads on the Armstrong tile. What dreams then do come are brought to us in part by characters who dwell in a present-tense world of disruption created by their own mean desires, desires previously muted by product placement. Something is rotten in Ad-Land, but as Leo Burnett's people say, "I'm lovin' it."

In the first story, "Cialis," Housley dives into the ubiquitous tub scene from the commercial and wisely has the wife relay the story's main conflict: will the husband ever achieve an erection, and, if so, how will they escape from the very public tubs where they are bathing? "How he got the resort people to put the tubs out here, I have no idea," she narrates, reinforcing one of many small but real concerns left unanswered by the commercial itself. This uncertainty weaves its way through the entire collection, allowing Housley to investigate the cracks in these characters. In doing so, he disrupts their monolithic narratives, often with surprisingly poignant and amusing results.

Housley is most adept at using pain to defamiliarize these commercial character types into more life-like portraits. In "Lexus," Cynthia, the white, affluent wife of a finance man, sits upstairs on Christmas day voiding her bowels upon learning of their impending bankruptcy. When her husband, unaware of her discovery, calls to her from the living room, it's not hard to guess what awaits her in the driveway—the gilded SUV with the giant red bow. But Housley zooms in where the commercial's camera operator has failed us and finds the story in the unmentionable details (her irritable bowels), the ordinary ones (her husband's nervous habits), and her own past. Fresh off the pot, all of these elements fuse together when she sees him standing by the car:

He is tapping his foot, pulling at the cuticle of his right thumb. French. She thinks. French 202. Junior year at Brown. His mind, so efficient and calculating in finance or math, couldn't comprehend the intricacies of verb conjugation, couldn't make the transition from utilitarian English to the fluid music of French. They would sit down to study and he would start to pick right away, picking at the cuticles like they held an answer.

Once the husband reveals he knows his secret is out, Cynthia's role-playing enhances the bitter reality of living in the eternal recession of today. Buying the Lexus for his wife is a final act of deception, but it is also a romantically desperate one; her playing along with him transforms the banal surprise into what she sees as a redemptive act.

In "Viagra" that role playing continues to comic effect. This time the characters confront the artifice of the commercial directly since the story is set behind the scenes of the shoot itself. A school teacher/actor gets cast as the impotent cowboy and tries to live up to the expectations of a real cowboy hired to instruct the teacher how to lasso. "They found us both in bars," the teacher narrates, "me and the real cowboy, although not in the same one. His was a roadhouse the advance people had tiptoed into to find 'for-real fucking cowboys.' Mine was a P. F. Chang's in the mall where I was waiting tables at night." When the cowboy dares him to take two blue pills and seduce Cindy, the woman cast as his wife, the teacher freezes: "'Just because I'm not a real cowboy…' I start, but I don't know how to finish." Outside of the world of restaurant chains and big box stores, the search for the authentic eludes this protagonist and many others throughout the collection. Spinning in the precession of simulacra, he and his ilk fold into themselves instead of acting, searching for reassurance from the real and finding little.

In other stories, Housley takes the given premise of the commercial's idea and runs with it into the void until it separates from its antecedent for good. "Canada Dry" is a series of primary source interviews and articles from a future where Carrie Newgent, or The Girl, pulls bottles and even whole trucks of ginger ale from ginger plants, and now has created a cult following of big-bellied zealots that the Center for Disease Control cannot stop and cannot dispute. Similarly, the voice of the true-believer is parodied in "Coors Light." An unnamed woman witnesses the ubiquitous silver bullet train appear, not so much narrating as testifying: "We turn to look en masse and a gleaming silver locomotive explodes out of the tunnel. I want to drop to my knees, to praise him, ask for forgiveness, but I'm buoyed by music: People all over the world…. I want to go to Him, to pledge my devotion, to ask what does it mean, what is next." In both of these stories, characters reaffirm their slippery belief that product is theophany, that order and goodness can be theirs through the simple act of consumption. As in this story, very often Housley ironizes his characters' epiphanies or simply denies them one, leaving us hanging, suspended in disbelief with the characters themselves. One can almost hear Housley saying, if you want satisfaction, buy a Snickers.

Yet the sad truth of these characters resonates because the only stable relationship so many of them have is with products or the people who pitch them. In "Taco Bell" and "Direct TV" both protagonists are lonely men, plagued by the incessant pandering of corporations, proving our suspicions true that what would seem amusing for a thirty-second spot quickly becomes intolerable. Miller, a lonely sous chef in a Taco Bell test kitchen laments the constant emails celebrity chef Lorena Garcia writes, exhorting him to "LOSE THE BURRITO." Yet her consistency in corresponding seems to offer Miller some form of kinship: "He's not sure why, but he is positive like him, Lorena Garcia has no family. He has never even considered her as a mother or a spouse. After these past few years, he can recognize another person who is alone." Loneliness pervades "Direct TV" as well, where another broken-hearted man must deal with the hallucinatory nattering of a tiny, be-winged Deion Sanders and Peyton Manning. Similar to "Taco Bell," Housley treads the line between being in the vapid story-world of commercials without being of it. Again, the protagonist reaches out for a connection that seems pathetic but true, this time confronting his own sanity by picking up a sleeping Peyton Manning and "put[ting] a trembling finger up to his wings" and then wondering if he can feel the heart beating. If Mitt Romney once argued that corporations are people, here Housley has done what his protagonist has not. He has put a finger on these corporate creations and found a pulse.