Sean Trinder’s The Guy Who Pumps Your Gas Hates You is part of NeWest Press’ Nunatak First Fiction Series. As stated in the introduction, these books are “specially selected works of outstanding fiction by new western writers.” This is Trinder’s first novel, and though the author draws heavily on his own experience and background (“write what you know,” indeed) he does it with a sure hand, authentically (and as the title makes clear, humorously) capturing the angst of suburban youth.
The short novel tells the story of Brendan, a 20 year old living in the small Manitoba town of Oakbank. Brendan is at that awkward age between teenager and adult, where life is open to possibilities and the fear of making the wrong choice–or sometimes any choice–can lead to paralysis and inaction, dooming yourself to a life of mediocrity and failed ambitions.
As the story begins, Brendan acknowledges that he is quite good at pumping gas, then admits that no one should ever become quite good at pumping gas. From there he details his daily life, which consists of working at the gas station, getting into regular arguments with his father (his mother having long-since divorced and moved to Toronto), hanging out with his friends, smoking, drinking, and yearning to have a career as a writer. Also, more smoking. Lots and lots of smoking. Export Gold is almost another character here.
Brendan grows increasingly frustrated by his life, feeling trapped in his hometown, and seeks escape by taking an evening writing class. There he meets the “older” woman Anne, who is 27. When you’re 20 every adult approaching 30 seems old. They hit it off and become friends and then start dating. There are ups and downs.
The same happens with Brendan’s friends. They enjoy spending their weekends drinking, smoking pot and drinking more. They insist it is normal and proper for guys in their early 20s to do these things, but Brendan begins to bristle at the routine.
Eventually everything comes to a head–the relationship with Anne sours over a revelation, a party with his friends goes sideways, a fight with his father ends with him wondering if he’ll be kicked out of the house.
At times the story almost reads like a diary, with Brendan’s first person voice providing a level of intimacy beyond just telling what happens. You find out what size his penis is, which comes out of his confession that he doesn’t like talking about sex. It sounds weird, but it works.
As a coming of age story, The Guy Who Pumps Your Gas Hates You doesn’t do anything especially new, but the tone is consistent and witty, and though Brendan occasionally has, you know, opinions, he never comes off as obnoxious or unlikable. The spartan scenes work surprisingly well in sketching out the life of the protagonist as he reaches a crossroads.
My only real complaint is that some of the bones here could use more meat. A number of plot elements hint at more–such as the increasingly shady behavior of the drug dealer contact–but are left unexplored.
Overall, though, this is an entertaining and engaging debut. I’m jealous. My first novel was a half-baked piece of science fiction. Not even half-baked. Maybe one-quarter baked, then dropped on the floor when I took it out of the oven, after which the dog ate it, threw it up, then ate it again.
As someone who was once an angsty 20 year old myself, I related to Brendan’s struggles, even if my own path involved a lot less sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’m not entirely sure how well someone who was not an angsty 20 year old guy would appreciate Brendan’s trials and tribulations, but it’s ultimately a sweet story. Recommended.