Crunch Time 

Name your syndrome in the stories of Neil Smith.

Eepie Carpetrod has it coming and going. Her mother insists that Eepie's mind and soul are forever — and forever expanding — just like the Big Bang, a theory that Eepie, age 8, has had to explain to her mother. But Eepie knows better. Her brain is due to expand until it collapses under its own weight, and then what? The Big Crunch, according to Eepie, who is suffering from Fred Hoyle syndrome, a rare disease that ages the poor girl a month a day. But Eepie's got company. Her boyfriend, age 16, suffers from Tourette's syndrome, and a housewife on Eepie's popular cable talk show, Through the Ages, suffers from Munchausen's syndrome, which is not the least of the suffering in the title story of Bang Crunch (Vintage), Neil Smith's first book and already a bestseller in the author's native Canada. But Fred Hoyle, Tourette's, Munchausen's ... the suffering in Bang Crunch doesn't stop there.

In "Isolettes," An (that's right, "An," like the indefinite article) is a young, unmarried mother (impregnated by a giving gay friend) who is faced with the odds of her preemie (named B) surviving past the age of 24 weeks. In "Extremities," readers are on the heels of a pair of women's calfskin gloves (worn by the gloves' unrightful owner, Dagmar Zavichak), but readers also keep track of a size-12 right foot lately freed from the body of astronaut Robert "Speed" Spedoski, a real prick otherwise blown to smithereens upon his liftoff to Mars. But in "Jaybird," we're back on solid ground, the stage, where the star's a struggling actor named Benoit Doré — 29 and a lady-killer left naked as a jaybird before an audience in Montreal while a playwright humiliates the hell out of him.

All of which will make you almost relieved to read of the less spectacular suffering of the unspectacularly named John Smith, who's testicular tumor turns out to be benign (in "The B9ers"). Or of Max, aka "Hippie," who may or may not have a thing for his flirtatious boyhood friend René-Louis Robidoux, aka "Ruby-Doo" (in "Green Fluorescent Protein"). Or of Max's mother, Peg, who is, then isn't a plain old recovering alcoholic. She's the one who's center stage in "Funny Weird of Funny Ha Ha?," a question that goes for all the stories in Bang Crunch, which are affecting too in their own weird ways — when, that is, Neil Smith isn't being too cutesy for words.

Datelines

Oxford (Ohio) — Miami University Press is that rarity: a publisher willing to print, in stand-alone form, novellas. Earlier this month, the press announced the winner of its annual novella contest, and the winner is ... Cary Holladay, assistant professor of English at the University of Memphis and the author of three volumes of short stories and one novel. Holladay beat out more than 150 entries to win the contest, which is sponsored by Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Judges were members of the school's creative-writing faculty.

That first-place finish means $1,000 in prize money and publication of Holladay's A Fight in the Doctor's Office, which tells of a newlywed who is abandoned by her husband and of the baby who wins her affection. Look for publication of A Fight in the Doctor's Office this fall.

Oxford (Mississippi) — It used to be the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers Conference, held outside Baltimore. Now it's the newly dubbed Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference, and before it moves on a permanent basis to the University of Memphis, it's making a stop, from February 29th to March 2nd, at the University of Mississippi. The theme of this year's conference, appropriately enough: "Journeys: Travel Writing & Memoir."

Scheduled speakers include Lee Gutkind, the man Vanity Fair described as the "godfather" of the creative-nonfiction movement; Samir Husni (aka "Mr. Magazine"), chair of the journalism department at Ole Miss; Ted Moncrief, executive editor of Condé Nast Traveler; June Thomas, foreign editor at Slate; and Rebecca Skloot, who teaches creative-nonfiction at the University of Memphis, which is co-sponsoring the event. Join them and other professionals for panel discussions, workshops, and one-on-one meetings with editors and agents. A series of pre-conference workshops (on February 28th and 29th) will cover additional topics for those interested in a career in creative nonfiction.

The Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference costs $350. To register or for more detailed information, go to creativenonfiction.org or call

412-688-0304.

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