Laced together with vivid images of Southern Ontario's sprawling tobacco fields, Sputnik Diner (Knopf Canada, 283 pages, $29.95 , ISBN: 0676973787) peers into the lives of curious folk in small-town Nanticoke. Composed of five related short stories, Maddocks' debut book tells bizarre anecdotes with unfaltering realism and unforgettable characters.
Born in Wales and raised in Southern Ontario, Maddocks' first short story, "Plane People", is essentially biographical. "Plane People" finds the Elias family relocating their lives from the British Isles to Nanticoke with hopes of reaping prosperity from the region's booming steel industry. Unprepared for the culture shock they will face, both parents and children are jolted by the unfamiliar set of Canadian norms. The story is rich with hysterics, particularly when young Luke Elias discovers the hard way that locking one's brand-new bicycle to a dumpster destined to be emptied is a recipe for heartbreak.
"The Birthday Boy's Song" tells of two young brothers faced with their father's terminal illness. This melancholy tale of the boys' disbelief and their mother's uphill struggle to stay optimistic takes an odd twist when pre-teenaged Thane steals his mother's car for an impromptu joyride. Discovering his younger brother hidden in the backseat, the two negotiate their way several towns over and come to terms with their anger on a dinosaur mini-putt.
Maddocks' final three stories are life snippets of three characters employed by the Sputnik Diner. "Lessons From the Sputnik Diner" introduces waitress and artist hopeful, Grace, along with the diner's flamboyant and psychotic owner, Marcel. While Marcel perfects the art of dysfunctional relationships with clientele, staff and family, small-town melodramas unfold to unwitting tunes belting from the diner's jukebox.
Painter elaborates on Grace's search for her birth parents, and consequent struggle with her true identity. Finishing off is The Blue Line Bus, which finds waitress Marie clambering desperately to make a clean escape from the harsh heartbreak Nanticoke has offered her.
Sputnik Diner is so appealing because it holds nothing back. The language is crude and unsophisticated, thus delivering a potent dose of reality. Maddocks carves out his characters craftily and succinctly, leaving you rife with anticipation when the plot is left hanging. Sputnik Diner is a quality read. You'll start to miss it after you've finished it, and wonder when you'll have a chance to it read again. ò