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Chemical Valley

by David Huebert

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list price: $22.95
published: 2021
publisher: Biblioasis
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Oil-soaked and swamp-born, the bruised optimism of Huebert’s stories offer sincere appreciation of the beauty of our wilted, wheezing world.

From city-dwelling preppers to long term care nurses, dishwashers to professional hockey enforcers to refinery workers, Chemical Valley’s caring and carefully-wrought stories cultivate rich human emotional worlds in all the dankness of our bio-chemical animacy. Full-hearted, laced throughout with bruised optimism and a sincere appreciation of the profound beauty of our wilted, wheezing world, Chemical Valley does not shy away from urgent modern questions—the distribution of toxicity, environmental racism, the future of technology, the climate, and the human body—but it grounds these anxieties in vivid and often humorous intricacies of its characters’ lives. These are stories about big questions, but they are not scared of sentiment. Swamp-wrought, they run wild with vital energy, tilt and teeter into crazed and delirious loves.

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Chemical Valley I kneel down and reach for the nearest bird, hydraulics buzzing in my teeth and knees. The pigeon doesn’t flinch or blink. No blood. No burn-smell. Sal’s there in seconds, his face a blear of night-shift grog. He rubs his bigger eye, squats by the carcasses. Behind him the river wends and glimmers, slicks through refinery glare. “Poison you figure?” Sal thumbs his coverall pockets. “Leak maybe.” Suzy appears next to Sal, seeping chew-spit into her Coke can. She leans over and takes a pigeon in her Kevlared paw. Brings it to her face. “Freaky,” she says, bottom lip bulging. “Eyes still open.” She wiggles her rat-face into a grin, a frond of tobacco wagging in her bottom teeth. I can’t afford to say it: “Saving that for later?” Suzy flares: “What?” “The chew.” Suzy puts a hand over her mouth, speaks with taut lips: “Enough of your guff.” I snort. “Guff?” She sets the bird down, hitches her coveralls. Lips closed, she tongues the tobacco loose and swallows. “Clean ’em up,” she says, nodding at the pigeons. She spins and walks away, trailing chew-spit across the unit. *** What you might find, if you were handling a dead pigeon, is something unexpected in the glassy cosmos of its eye: a dark beauty, a molten alchemy. You might find a pigeon’s iris looks how you imagine the Earth’s core—pebble-glass waves of crimson, a perfect still shudder of rose and lilac. What you might do, if you were placing a dead pigeon into the incinerator, is take off your Kevlar glove and touch your bare index finger to its cornea. What you might do before dropping the bird into a white-hot Mordor of carbon and coke is touch your fingertip to that unblinking membrane and hold it there, feeling a mangle of tenderness and violation, thinking this may be the loveliest secret you have ever touched. *** I’m telling Eileen how I want to be buried, namely inside a tree. We’re sitting in bed eating Thai from the mall and listening to the 6 p.m. construction outside our window—the city tearing up the whole street along with tree roots and a rusted tangle of lead pipes—and I’m telling Eileen it’s called a biodegradable burial pod. Mouth full of cashew curry and I’m saying what they do is put your remains in this egg-looking thing like the xenomorph’s cocoon from Alien: Resurrection but it’s made of biodegradable plastic. I’m telling Eileen it’s called “capsula mundi” and what they do is hitch the remains to a semi-mature tree and plant the whole package. Stuff you down in fetal position and let you gradually decay until you become nitrogen, seep into soil. Contemplating panang, Eileen asks where I got the idea about the burial pod and I tell her Facebook or maybe an email newsletter. “You click on that shit? Why are you even thinking about this now? You just turned thirty-four.” I don’t tell her about the basement, about Mum. I don’t tell her about the pigeons strewn out on the concrete and then going supernova in the incinerator, don’t mention how it gets me thinking about flesh, about bodies, about waste. I don’t tell her about Blane, the twenty-nine-year-old long-distance runner who got a heart attack sitting at the panel in the Alkylation unit. Blane didn’t die but he did have to get surgery and a pacemaker and that sort of thing gets you thinking. Which is how you end up lying in bed at night checking your pulse and feeling like your chest is shrinking and thinking about the margin of irregular and erratic. Picking a bamboo shoot from her molars: “Since when are you into trees?” She says it smug. She says it like Ms. University Sciences and nobody else is allowed to like trees. I don’t tell her how we’re all compost and yes I read that on a Facebook link. I also do not tell her about the article’s tagline: “Your carbon footprint doesn’t end in the grave.” Reaching for the pad thai, I tell her about the balance, how it’s only natural. How the human body’s rich in nitrogen, how when you use a coffin there’s a lot of waste because the body just rots on its own when it could be giving nutrients to the system. Not to mention all the metals and treated woods in coffins. I tell her how the idea is to phase out traditional graveyards entirely, replace them with grave-forests. “Hmm,” Eileen says, gazing out the window—the sky a caramelized rose. “Is this a guilt thing, from working at the plants?” I tell her no, maybe, I don’t know. An excavator hisses its load into the earth. “Is this why you were so weird about your mother’s funeral?” I ask what she means and she says never mind, sorry. “Do you ever imagine they’re ducks?” Eileen asks what and I tell her the loaders and the bulldozers and the cranes. Sometimes I imagine they’re wildlife, ducks or geese. And maybe why they’re crying like that is because they’re in distress. Like maybe they’ve lost their eggs and all they want is to get them back and when you think about it like that it’s still bad but at least it’s not just machines screaming and blaring because they’re tearing up old sidewalks to put new ones down. “Ducks,” Eileen says. “Probably still be one working for every three scratching their guts for overtime pay.” She stacks the containers and reaches for the vaporizer on the nightstand, asking if I love trees so much why didn’t I become a landscaper or a botanist or an arborist. I shrug, not mentioning the debt or the mortgage or the pharmaceutical bills. Not mentioning that if I wanted to do something it would be the comic store but there’s no market in Sarnia anyway. I tell her it’s probably too late for a career change.

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Contributor notes

David Huebert’s writing has won the CBC Short Story Prize, The Walrus Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the 2020 Journey Prize. David’s fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won a Dartmouth Book Award, was shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Short Fiction Prize, and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. David’s work has been published in magazines such as The Walrus, Maisonneuve, enRoute, and Canadian Notes & Queries, and anthologized in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories. David teaches at The University of King’s College in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, where he lives and writes.

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Editorial Review

Praise for Chemical Valley

"By delving into the lives of a range of characters, feral hockey players, grieving shift-workers, and love-sick teenagers, Huebert asks an urgent question—how to survive in a world that values chemicals and capitalism over human life? Lively, affecting, tragic, careful, and shot-through with humor, the stories seeped under my skin. I won't forget them any time soon."—Claire Cameron, author of The Last Neanderthal

Praise for David Huebert

"In David Huebert’s 'Chemical Valley,' the narrator’s remarkable voice is laced with dark humour while displaying a tremendous depth of feeling as he cares for his dying partner and navigates a dangerous workplace replete with unpleasant coworkers. This is a complex story about love, death, and grief set in a contemporary Canadian community plagued by petrochemical-induced diseases and environmental ruin. The attention to language is so meticulous that tragedy is imbued with an aura of beauty. Each exquisite sentence in 'Chemical Valley' produces a sense of wonderment as the narrative crescendos to its harrowing conclusion."— 2020 Journey Prize Jury statement

"A paean to intimacy and to things rarely seen, 'Enigma' is an eloquent meditation on the mystery of life and death, love and grief, both human and animal. This is a vivid personal narrative of remarkable spiritual and emotional grace." —2016 CBC Prize jury statement (

"David Huebert’s short story collection, Peninsula Sinking brings all of the beauty, grace and heartbreak that the form excels at and then rattles you with its imagery."—The East Magazine

"A sense of wonderment penetrates the everyday lives of characters from the Maritimes in this well-crafted, compelling collection that displays a mastery of classical short-story structure and technique. Huebert’s vibrant language juxtaposes tough characters with tender preoccupations, creating narratives that are unsettling and mesmerizing, making ordinary moments in relationships thrilling and dangerous."—2017 Danuta Gleed Jury

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