Bull Head review online

September 8, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

My review of Bull Head is up on the National Post website.

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.

Comments are closed.