Longtime readers of TSR will be familiar with my affinity for short fiction, and my oft-repeated contention that Canada ranks as one of the most fertile literary fields for this particular genre. Yet, despite boasting a wealth of talent, the reading public seems to shy away from short fiction for reasons that continue to elude me.
In a post for the cultural website Lemon Hound early last fall, I bemoaned the lack of attention stories and collections of short fiction receive in this country:
[There exists] a general perception that short stories are considered, by publishers and readers alike, the redheaded stepchildren of CanLit. This is frankly baffling, especially considering the pedigree short fiction has in this country. Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro are both Canadian short-fiction writers (though, granted, the former hasn’t lived here for over fifty years), and I defy anyone to name a stronger living practitioner of the form. Beyond those two, a partial list of top-rank Canadian short-story writers past and present should be enough to make most readers sit up and take notice: Norman Levine, Clark Blaise, Mark Anthony Jarman, Caroline Adderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Bill Gaston, Sharon English, Andrew Hood, Matthew Shaw, Carol Windley, Leon Rooke, Diane Schoemperlen, Zsuzsi Gartner, Steven Heighton, Donald Ward, Gloria Sawai, Alexander MacLeod, Michael Christie, Terry Griggs, Ray Smith. Some of these writers alternate between short fiction and novels, but the strength of their shorter works is comparable to the best of what is being produced anywhere in the world.
Yet time and again I’ve heard readers complain they don’t enjoy short stories, which are too difficult, or not long enough to really immerse oneself in and get to know the characters. This latter objection has always struck me at best as obviously wrong, and at worst little more than a lazier way of expressing the former. But publishers know their market, and by and large avoid publishing collections they know will not make much of a dent at the cash register.
Although this general disdain is frustrating, I’ve been trying to do my bit to spotlight the form, via the annual 31 Days of Stories on this site, and in writing for the National Post, Quill & Quire, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. (When I was asked to choose my favourite books from 2012 for Quill, three-fifths of them were short-story collections.)
So when Mark Medley, the Books editor at the National Post, e-mailed to ask if I’d be interested in undertaking a monthly column dedicated to Canadian short fiction, it took me all of about five seconds to say yes.
Called “Shortcuts,” the column debuts today on the Post‘s Afterword blog. It features a double review of two veterans of the CanLit trenches: Leon Rooke and Seán Virgo. Here’s a taste of the inaugural column:
Over the course of a writing career spanning the last four-and-a-half decades, and employing influences that run the gamut from Italian Renaissance art to the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner, Leon Rooke has determinedly been crafting one of the most idiosyncratic bodies of work in this country. If the house of CanLit has many mansions, Rooke’s is the one with the gargoyles on the turret.
This devotion to a ruggedly individual literary vision (it should come as no surprise that Rooke was born and raised in the United States – Roanoke Rapids, N.C., to be precise) results in writing that will, depending upon one’s temperament and pioneer spirit, appear bracingly original or frustratingly oblique. In any event, it is probably not incorrect to refer to Rooke’s fiction as an acquired taste. Once the taste has been acquired, however, devotees have learned to relish it, hungrily devouring each new work – and they run the gamut from novellas to poems to stage and radio plays – if for no other reason than to discover what unexpected combination of flavours the author will attempt to pull off next.
I’m very grateful to Mark and the Post for providing the opportunity to shine a light on short fiction in Canada, and am looking forward to what is sure to be provocative, challenging, and entertaining reading in the months ahead. I hope you’ll join me.
Kicking off 2013, I’ve got a quartet of new Quill & Quire reviews online, including a fabulously rare review of a novel for children.
First up is a stellar debut story collection from Spencer Gordon. If you haven’t already checked this one out, I’d strongly urge you to do so.
Gordon demonstrates a refreshing willingness to test the plasticity of language and structure. “Frankie + Hilary + Romeo + Abigail + Helen: An Intermission,” which reads like a mash-up of David Foster Wallace and American Psycho–vintage Bret Easton Ellis, is an interrogation of boredom in the context of a society that has become so enthralled by the notion of celebrity that a mere litany of irrelevant facts about people in the public eye can be thought to carry some kind of deeper meaning.
This is not to suggest Gordon is incapable of being straightforward when it suits him. Two of the most emotionally affecting stories in the collection – “Wide and Blue and Empty,” about a mother’s attempt to connect with her grown son, and “Last Words,” about a man in his sixties trying to come to terms with the squandered potential of his life in the wake of a cancer diagnosis – are perfectly traditional short stories, rendered all the more potent for their lack of stylistic pyrotechnics.
Next is a Jon Krakauer-esque non-fiction book about the 1984 plane crash that killed the leader of the provincial opposition in Alberta, and the four men who survived.
On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Wapiti 402, a 10-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain twin-engine aircraft bound for the town of Grande Prairie, crashed in the wilderness of Northern Alberta, killing six passengers, including Grant Notley, the leader of the provincial opposition NDP. Four people survived: Erik Vogel, the pilot; RCMP constable Scott Deschamps; Paul Archambault, the prisoner Deschamps was escorting from Kamloops to Grande Prairie on an outstanding warrant; and Larry Shaben, minister for housing and utilities in the Alberta provincial government. The four men spent a harrowing night fighting the elements and struggling to stay alive while waiting to be rescued.
National Magazine Award winner Carol Shaben – Larry’s daughter – reconstructs the events leading up to the crash, the night on the mountain, and the way the survivors’ lives were changed as a result.
Third is a gorgeously illustrated book of photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, accompanied by fascinating text about the various celestial bodies and galaxies.
Terence Dickinson, the editor of SkyNews magazine and author of NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, has compiled a visually breathtaking array of Hubble’s images in an extraordinary new volume.
Accessible but never condescending, Dickinson’s text describes the makeup of celestial objects from brown dwarfs to blue supergiants, and cogently explains Hubble’s major breakthroughs (such as allowing scientists to determine with greater accuracy the rate at which the universe is expanding).
And finally, the first book in a new series for young readers, written by the indefatigable Cary Fagan.
There are no clear-cut villains in this novel: the school bully reveals unexpected dimensions, as does the young magician, Franklin, whose resistance to accepting Sullivan as a member of the group turns out to be born of jealousy. Even Mistress Melville, the most frankly malevolent of the troupe, helps Sullivan find a hook for his juggling act (albeit out of selfish motives).
Nor is Fagan content to restrict himself to a single register. Young readers may giggle at the two police officers named Spoonitch and Forka, but will likely miss the joke in the fact that Mintz father and son are named Gilbert and Sullivan.
My review of Nicole Dixon’s short-story collection, High-Water Mark, is online at the National Post‘s Afterword blog. The review has already come in for criticism on Twitter as a result of my invocation of what the poet Jacob McArthur Mooney feels is a hoary CanLit cliché.
– Jake(@VoxPopulist) December 14, 2012
Here’s the offending paragraph:
Dixon is uninterested in the kind of lyrical historical romance that was, for some time, the default CanLit setting. Her stories are abrasive and direct, marrying a fierce intelligence with a febrile style that refuses to shy away from profanity or explicit sex. There is a toughness to these stories that testifies to a refreshing honesty, a refusal on Dixon’s part to paper over the more nettlesome aspects of her material, opting rather to face it head-on in all its painful messiness. High-Water Mark is kitchen-sink realism filtered through a storm-tossed East Coast sensibility. And it is chock full of allusiveness and implication.
Twitter controversy aside, I thought Dixon’s book was a bit of alright.
In other news, Toronto-based poet Sachiko Murakami, this month’s writer in residence at Open Book: Toronto, asked me to choose a guest list for an imaginary literary holiday party. You can see my response, along with those of poets David McGimpsey and Alessandro Porco, on the Open Book site.
Three new Quill reviews are now online, one each of a novel, a story collection, and a work of graphica. Guess which one I liked best?
The Sweet Girl returns readers to the world of ancient Greece that served as the setting for Lyon’s previous novel, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award winner The Golden Mean. When Alexander the Great, once his student, dies, Aritstotle and his family are forced to flee the city for the garrison town of Chalcis. When Aristotle himself dies, Pythias is left on her own to find a place in a world that does not accommodate her independence, and seems intent on corrupting her.
The novel presents a detailed and carefully wrought milieu that feels at once true to its time and startling in the ways it resonates with our modern world. Pythias’s experiences are never far removed from the matter of her gender, and it is telling that the only place her wit is permitted to flourish is in the ad hoc brothel where she provides sexual services to prominent town citizens.
The collection is the new release from Shelley A. Leedahl.
When cracking open a new collection of short fiction, it’s not encouraging to discover the following sentence fewer than 10 pages in: “Playing cards trumped all else in our family.” This kind of affected punning is frequently a sign of desperation on the part of a writer; for a reader, encountering this sentence so early on results in a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Fortunately, this instance of self-conscious prose is not entirely indicative of the stories in B.C. writer Shelley A. Leedahl’s 10th book.
The dozen stories in Listen, Honey centre on relationships – familial and romantic – most of which are decidedly dysfunctional. In “The Song of the Dog,” a couple tries to replace their beloved deceased canine (improbably named Elton John), resulting in friction when the new pet turns out to be a “holy terror.” The high-school senior in “Rabun County” simultaneously negotiates a romantic relationship with one of her teachers and the implications of her mentally challenged sister’s unwanted pregnancy. And in the title story, a wayward son listens to a succession of voicemail messages left by his lonely and inconsolable mother.
And the work of graphica is a startling collection of comics from Toronto resident Nina Bunjevac.
Bunjevac’s narratives explore displacement and urban ennui, with a distinctly Eastern European sensibility (the author credits Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev as an influence). In “Opportunity Presents Itself,” a Balkan woman is brought to America by her venal uncle. Hoping for a new life, what she finds is closer to hell on earth. In the collection’s centrepiece, a character named Zorka Petrovic (who resembles a female version of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat), becomes pregnant with a male stripper’s child. Her abject loneliness and longing for some form of basic companionship is heartbreaking.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that my surprise at this year’s Giller longlist resulted mainly from how populist it is. The thirteen books this year’s jury selected seem, for the most part, resolutely – almost defiantly – mainstream. Longtime readers of TSR will realize that my own literary sensibilities are not what could reasonably be called mainstream: I enjoy and gravitate toward fiction that challenges and takes chances.
For those who might approach this year’s Giller list with a sense of disappointment at missed opportunities, may I offer an alternative?
John Vigna’s debut story collection is written much in the same mode as (and indeed shares a geographic setting with) D.W. Wilson’s collection Once You Break a Knuckle. Vigna’s work will inevitably be compared to Wilson, and to strongly masculine, muscular writers like Hemingway and Carver, but for my money, his stories of men scraping and scrabbling to escape the shackles of their circumstances have at least as much in common with 20th-century literature of paralysis. It’s a strong collection, and worthy of your time. Be warned, however: it’s not an uplifting book, and certain stories (“South Country” is a prime example) are difficult and distressing. If you’re up for it, though, it’s a tough, bracing collection.
John Vigna opens his debut story collection with an epigraph from Flannery O’Connor: “the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him.” In defending the use of violence in fiction, O’Connor took issue with critics and readers who assumed that violence is an end rather than a means. “With the serious writer,” O’Connor wrote, “violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe that these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives.” (O’Connor, it should be noted, was not well versed in CanLit.)
Using O’Connor’s yardstick, it is apparent that Vigna is a very serious writer, indeed. The men in Vigna’s tales resort to physical brutality as an expression of a kind of existential yearning; on a thematic level, these are stories of paralysis — of characters’ inability to rise above their circumstances — that owe as much to the work of Beckett and Joyce as to Hemingway and O’Connor.
My review of Anne Fleming’s second story collection, Gay Dwarves of America is up at the National Post‘s website. Perhaps surprisingly, the book’s title is not even the best thing about it.
Fleming is at her best in stories that are much more familiar or conventional (if one may use that word non-pejoratively in a critical context).
“Unicycle Boys,” for instance, is a straightforward tale of a teenaged girl who accompanies a misfit to his high-school prom, much to the disdain of her popular ex-boyfriend. Fleming nicely captures the awkwardness and pathos of being an outsider in a milieu that prizes conformity above all. Even the story’s narrator, who claims to disavow cliques of any kind, must align herself to a group that is defined by its outsider status: “What group did we think we belonged to? Hard to remember. Smart girls with sharp wits, girls who argued with teachers, who questioned authority, who mouthed off but got good marks, girls who thought themselves worldly. Girls who scorned membership in a group.” The decision to have the story narrated by an adult looking back on her adolescence also provides a useful ironic distance, adding a layer of pathos to the story’s conclusion.
From Who Do You Think You Are?
When people say Alice Munro is capable of more depth, nuance, and character development in a single forty-page story than most authors can pull off in a 500-page novel, it’s stories like “The Beggar Maid” they are talking about. The centrepiece of Munro’s 1978 Governor General’s Literary Award–winning collection is so thematically dense, so emotionally resonant, so linguistically inventive it’s almost difficult to countenance. “The Beggar Maid” is the story of Rose, a young woman from a working-class family in the small Ontario town of Hanratty, who goes off to university on a scholarship and ends up in a romance with Patrick Blatchford, the wealthy scion of a family that owns a chain of British Columbia department stores. Munro’s story addresses heavy themes – class, sex, identity – but does so in a seemingly effortless manner.
After a chance meeting in the university library where Rose works, she and Patrick fall into a love affair, which proves troublesome because, although they are both loath to admit it, their differing economic and social backgrounds are a locus of conflict. The first indication of friction occurs in the story’s opening paragraph: Rose admits to being nervous about Patrick’s sophistication after he becomes agitated when one of her friends mispronounces the name Metternich. When the couple visits Patrick’s family on Vancouver Island, Rose feels utterly inadequate. She buys a “fuzzy angora sweater, peach-colored,” which she thinks is elegant enough, but concludes that it resembles “a small-town girl’s idea of dressing up.” Patrick’s mother displays “affront, disapproval, dismay” in Rose’s presence, and his sisters evince a haughty insouciance:
At an earlier meal they had questioned Rose.
“Do you ride?”
“Do you sail?”
“Play tennis? Play golf? Play badminton?”
“No. No. No.”
“Perhaps she is an intellectual genius, like Patrick.”
The Blatchford house is a sprawling Tudor mansion on a half-acre of land, a stark contrast to Rose’s own humble origins. She takes Patrick home to Hanratty to meet her stepmother, Flo, and the experience is “just as bad as she thought it would be”:
Flo had gone to great trouble, and cooked a meal of scalloped potatoes, turnips, big country sausages which were a special present from Billy Pope, from the butcher shop. Patrick detested coarse-textured food, and made no pretense of eating it. The table was spread with a plastic cloth, they ate under the tube of fluorescent light. The centerpiece was new and especially for the occasion. A plastic swan, lime green in color, with slits in the wings, in which were stuck folded, colored paper napkins.
The juxtaposition of the Blatchfords’ supercilious politesse with Flo’s small-town kitsch lends the story a mordantly humorous aspect, but also highlights the degree to which Rose is caught between conflicting ideas of what she should be. Rose clings to Patrick because he represents something greater than even the highest of Hanratty’s aspirations: “She could not realize what a coup she had made because it would have been a coup for her if the butcher’s son had fallen for her, or the jeweler’s; people would say she had done well.” And yet Rose has difficulty admitting to herself that Patrick’s lack of humour and sexual reticence fail to enthrall her.
She is further troubled by her landlady, Dr. Henshawe, a university professor who feels that Rose should be devoting herself to her studies rather than setting herself up for the traditional female roles of wife and mother:
“The future will be wide open, for women. You must concentrate on languages. You must take courses in political science. And economics. Perhaps you could get a job on the paper for the summer. I have friends there.”
Rose was frightened at the idea of working on a paper, and she hated the introductory economics course; she was looking for a way of dropping it. It was dangerous to mention things to Dr. Henshawe.
What the citizens of Hanratty have in common with Patrick and Dr. Henshawe is a desire to make Rose over in their own image, to force her to conform to the role they feel she should play, rather than allow her the freedom to chart her own path. Patrick compares Rose to the Beggar Maid in Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s painting, with all the chivalric romance that association entails. But this is not the conception Rose has of herself. She is a much more active agent than the other characters in the story will give her credit for being.
The American and U.K. editions of Munro’s book are called “The Beggar Maid: Stories of Rose and Flo,” which is more romantic and lyrical than the frankly acerbic Canadian title. But it is also less resonant. “The Beggar Maid” is an ironic title for this story, because Rose implicitly disavows the association with the painting when Patrick brings it up. The Canadian title, by contrast, allows for a greater field of implication as Rose is buffeted between various characters with competing interests and conflicting ideas about what is best for her. There are critics who suggest that this collection of linked stories is actually one of only two novels Munro has written (the other being Lives of Girls and Women). I prefer to think of “The Beggar Maid” as a story that is novelistic in its structure and execution, but fully able to stand on its own as a case study of a woman faced with the persistent and troubling question, Who do you think you are?
From All the Voices Cry
In his guide for fiction writers, The Art of Fiction, one of the exercises John Gardner provides reads as follows: “Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.” The point, of course, is to develop the ability to convey a mood without being overly explicit or expository. Mood should arise organically out of a work of fiction, not be larded onto it in an artificial way.
The thing about mood, though, is that it is sometimes inextricably tied into setting. Locating a story in 1939 Poland, for instance, will infuse that story with a certain resonance for readers, no matter what the specifics of that story may be. But what if a story is set in a less archetypal, but nonetheless fraught, locale? How are readers expected to react, and how does a reader’s reaction change should he or she be cognizant of the setting’s import?
“Neptune’s Necklace” focuses on a seventy-three-year-old artist living in New Zealand. As the story opens, the artist, Hattie, walks along the beach with her dog. There is nothing particularly unusual about this scene, except for the focus on images of death or passage. As she walks along the beach, Hattie imagines seeing “a clutch of child-sized shades running before her,” and pictures them “gazing at a dead mollymawk where it had washed up against a piece of driftwood.” The word “shades,” although somewhat outmoded, clearly refers to ghosts, and a mollymawk is a kind of albatross, a type of bird that has obvious literary connotations. We later discover that “the shades were girls, all of them, and one of the shades was Hattie’s daughter.”
The balance of the story involves Hattie retreating home to evade the rains that occur daily, and being interrupted in her business by two young people whose car has broken down. The couple, a young man and a young woman, ask to use Hattie’s phone and Hattie offers to make them tea. In the course of their discussion, it transpires that the young woman is an art history student who has to do an essay “on someone contemporary.” She asks about Hattie’s influences, to which the older woman replies, “I don’t have any influences.”
The only significant influence Hattie has is her daughter, one of the three shades she imagines seeing at the beach. Her daughter, along with two other girls, died when a “rogue current” dragged her out to sea: this is the event that Hattie has simultaneously been running from and been unable to evade ever since. All well and good, and a perfectly crafted example of a rather melancholy domestic tale.
Hattie lives near a beach by the city of Dunedin in New Zealand, and the opening sentence of the story makes reference to a salt marsh. These details imply that the beach in question is Aramoana Beach, near Otago harbour in New Zealand. Aramoana Beach is the site of a 1990 massacre of thirteen people by a lone gunman, the most egregious instance of gun violence in New Zealand’s history. “I did not want to write about the massacre itself,” Petersen says, “so I made a parallel narrative, as my own act of memorial.”
It is coincidental that I read the interview with Petersen prior to reading her story. But how does a knowledge of Aramoana Beach’s history change the effect of the story, if at all? How would one react to the melancholy aspect of the tale if one thought it had no real world resonance? Does the knowledge of the 1990 massacre lend Hattie’s story additional gravitas? Does it tug at a reader differently? In Gardner’s terms, Petersen describes the setting of the massacre without ever mentioning the massacre. The story stands on its own. Armed with the background knowledge of what the story’s setting implies, how does that change a reader’s experience of it? Since it is impossible to erase the knowledge of what the setting implies, it is impossible for me to answer these questions. I would be interested to find out, however.
From All the Anxious Girls on Earth
Sometimes, stories take on extra resonance in retrospect. I first read “The Nature of Pure Evil” in 1999, when the now-defunct Key Porter Books released All the Anxious Girls on Earth, Zsuzsi Gartner’s debut story collection. In the wake of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize nomination for her follow-up, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Penguin Canada has re-released All the Anxious Girls, allowing me to reacquaint myself with the story of Hedy, who calls in fake bomb threats to Vancouver businesses as a kind of sublimated revenge after her partner of seven years, Stanley, abandons her in a spectacular fashion.
When the story first appeared, 9/11 had yet to occur, although terrorists had made one attempt at bombing the World Trade Center, in 1993, and in 1995 Timothy McVeigh had successfully bombed Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. This latter incident, especially, brought the notion of domestic terrorism to the forefront of North American consciousness. Nevertheless, there is a different sense of unease that pervades a reading of Gartner’s story in a post-9/11 environment. The story unfolds as a kind of philosophical deconstruction of evil in modern society, and the questions it asks – What is evil? How do we identify it? Is it absolute, or is it relative? – are urgent, particularly given the explicitly religious context in which they are positioned.
The first reference to religion occurs in the story’s opening paragraph, which sees Hedy reaching for the phone to call in a bomb threat to the TD Tower across from her office. This is not the first such threat she has made: we are told that she has done something similar on at least three prior occasions. This time, she imagines standing at the window of her building and watching the occupants of the TD Tower flee. “It’s a disruption of commerce, nothing more,” she thinks, likening herself to Jesus driving the moneylenders out of the temple. Hedy is not devout – her knowledge of Jesus comes not from the Bible, but from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar – yet she imagines herself akin to Jesus on several occasions. After calling in a bomb threat to the Four Seasons hotel, she watches the people (including her ex, Stanley) milling about in the crowd and gets the impression they are enjoying themselves. “People had something to discuss while they waited at bus stops and SkyTrain stations,” she thinks. “They were talking to each other. By casting them out into the street, Hedy had done them all a favour. Like Jesus.”
The mentions of Jesus are counterpointed by imagery and metaphors evoking the Devil, either explicitly or less directly. After Stanley leaves her, Hedy’s work colleague, Brigit, takes her out for a meal with a group of women who spend much time bickering over the nature of evil. During the discussion, one of the women, “a practising family therapist,” tells a story about going to an open house in Ottawa and being disconcerted by one bedroom, the ceiling of which is painted black with a red pentagram on it. Mary Tan, a French immersion teacher, claims that the story makes the hair on her arms stand up, while Donna, “who was unbelievably thin despite her seven-month pregnancy” is somewhat less moved: “I find it really hard to believe they wouldn’t have painted the ceiling over before attempting to sell such a prime piece of real estate.”
The Devil rears his head again later, when one of the women refers to another as “the devil’s advocate”; prior to this Mary eyes her dessert lasciviously, saying, “It’s devilish, it’s evil, I love it.”
Here, evil is reduced to mere chatter, fodder for throwaway conversation over a dining table. For Donna, the pentagram on the ceiling does not represent anything more diabolical than a blot on an otherwise salable property. And it’s more than a bit ironic that the family therapist is the one to make the comment, “When you’ve come into contact with pure evil, there’s no mistaking it.” (Gartner is particularly good at piercing the pretensions of the modern grief industry by forcing them to abut more serious philosophical material.)
For her part, Brigit considers Stanley to be the embodiment of evil because of what he does to Hedy. “Whenever Hedy insisted Stanley had never been the slightest bit crazy, Brigit said, ‘Then he must be pure evil. There’s no other explanation for that kind of behaviour.’ ” Brigit rightly identifies a lack of remorse as one of the defining characteristics of psychopathy, a category she lumps Stanley into: “Hitler, Clifford Olson, David Koresh, those blond monsters in St. Catharines, all anonymous albino hitmen everywhere … and Stanley.” She may indeed be correct. The notion of “pure evil” may be a chimera, but where remorselessness is concerned, the difference between Paul Bernardo and Stanley may be one of degree, not kind.
However, Hedy frustrates Brigit by refusing to condemn Stanley, and does not give in to despair or anger. She acts out her feelings of aggression by calling in her fake bomb threats, which is difficult to accept, even if she and the women at the restaurant tend to view the act as a victimless crime. Nevertheless, Hedy is presented as being at least close to happy: as she moves through the lobby of her office building on the way to a pay phone to make her next call, she is described as feeling “positively grand.” Brigit presents Hedy with a magazine article about a psychiatrist “who thinks happiness should be classified as a mental condition – because it’s a highly abnormal state of being.” Where, we are led to ponder, does that leave Hedy, who feels completely justified and at peace with herself and her actions? “Didn’t Jesus say, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” Hedy thinks. “Everyone knows that from their elementary school catechism. And Hedy, well, she is without sin. She is the lamb.”
From Once You Break a Knuckle
In his Quill & Quire review of Matt Lennox’s novel, The Carpenter, Alex Good wrote, “WorkLit is GuyLit, the other side of ChickLit. WorkLit is also ProleLit, as manual labour is understood to be undesirable: demanding, dangerous, and poorly paid.” D.W. Wilson writes WorkLit, which is also GuyLit, which is also ProleLit. Wilson’s characters work with their hands, they drink and curse and fight, but they also yearn in a way that admits a kind of vulnerability that often goes overlooked in commentary about this kind of macho, tough-guy fiction.
The central character in “Valley Echo” is called Winch. His proper name is Winston, so named by his mother “because it evoked hints of rubbled London and because she remembered her old man, a gunned-down naval aviator who she eventually discovered had raped her mother.” From the start, Winch is inextricably associated with violence. His nickname results from his father’s brainstorm as he builds a tree fort for his son: “Conner and the boy fashioned a pulley system around the tree’s branches, and as his son helped him heave on a rope to hoist the base, the nickname came to him: Winch.” Wilson’s story circles around the relationship between Winch and his father, Conner, and touches uncomfortably on themes of violence and sexual jealousy.
If Winch’s nickname refers specifically to the device used to haul wood for building the tree fort, it also refers to the Winchester rifle owned by Conner’s buddy, Sampson, a rifle that is used in an act of aggression briefly and elliptically glimpsed by Winch from a boat on the water, with his father and Sampson facing off on the shore: “Both men had changed positions: his dad had his back to the water now, shoulders rolled down and head hunched and fists at his side. Sampson had the .308 levelled at his dad’s chest. From that range it’d blow a man’s heart clear out.” Although the specific nature of the dispute between Conner and Sampson remains obscure, it is certainly not accidental that Wilson indicates the rifle fired at close range could blow a man’s heart out. It is finally the heart that these men respond most strongly to.
“Valley Echo” is all about the tensions that erupt around masculine relationships: fathers and sons, friends and rivals. The story’s central conflict involves sexual jealousy between Conner and Winch over Miss Hawk, Winch’s high school shop teacher, with whom Conner has previously had an affair. Much of the masculine code in the story involves proclaiming oneself in protection of, or in opposition to, women: Winch stands up for a girl he is seeing when she is threatened by a punk at the local hot springs, and he asserts himself in the face of his father’s antipathetic reaction to his teacher. Winch punches Conner when the latter insults Miss Hawk, an action that results in a violent response from the older man: “His dad fell upon him, limbs methodical. Winch batted an arm aside, absorbed a half blow with his ribs, snugged his elbow over it. He smelled beer and deodorant and cigarettes, and Winch had never known his dad to smoke.”
Conner knows only violence as a reaction to a situation of conflict, although Winch’s grandfather manages to defuse the situation:
His gramps appeared at the front porch, barked: put him down. Winch stared at his dad whose fist gyrated in the air and whose forearm pinned him against the tree.
–Nup, his dad said, and lowered him. The fist relaxed, unfurled. He brushed Winch’s shoulder, as if to remove dirt. –I won’t be that guy.
In many ways, Conner’s entire trajectory in the story involves an attempt not to “be that guy”; his great realization is that he was never as good a father to Winch as Winch’s gramps was. “Muh dad was yer dad,” Conner says to his son. “I didn’t do as good as him. He got it right or sompthen.”
Wilson’s characters are constantly struggling against their situation in an attempt to get it right. The final image in the story has Winch imagining himself breaking free of the shackles that bind him to the ground and taking off “in a contraption he’d hand-built to carry him from the earth.” It is this strong desire for transcendence that elevates the characters from their circumstances and provides them their greatest strength and dignity.