31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 29: “South Country” by John Vigna

May 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Bull Head

Bull_HeadThe eight stories in Bull Head take place in a fictionalized version of British Columbia’s Elk Valley region, and feature (predominantly) working-class men struggling and scraping to get by, trying to wrest some form of meaning out of their constrained circumstances. What most crucially marks the stories is a resolute refusal on the part of the author to comment or offer any kind of moral opprobrium. These are true “exit author” stories: Vigna presents his characters and their situations, and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions about them.

Vigna introduces the collection with an epigraph from Flannery O’Connor focusing on the capability of violence to return people to an essential state, and certainly there is violence aplenty in these stories. Bull Head is, in sum, rough, scabrous, and nasty.

The nastiest story of the bunch is “South Country,” which mercilessly dissects the consequences of cyclical violence within the context of a hyper-masculine culture. The violence in the story is made even more unpalatable for being sexual in nature. But for all its amorality and savage content, the story shares with the others in the collection a thematic insistence on paralysis; the characters in “South Country” are trapped, by their circumstances, but also by an inheritance of violence and discord they are ultimately unable to rise above.

The heart of the story is Billy, the first-person narrator. Billy drives a cab and spends his evenings drinking at the Northerner bar, often in the company of Travis. Travis is misogyny incarnate, and has a particularly odious ongoing bet with his buddy: whenever one of them succeeds in taking a woman home and having sex with her, he owes the other $100. The other man is then obliged to sleep with the same woman; if he is unable, he owes double. The two men view the women in the town as nothing more than potential conquests, with a dollar value attached, at that. “To easy prey,” is Travis’s appalling toast to Billy over beers at the Northerner.

In the bar, both men take notice of a waitress with an Australian accent. Travis adopts a typical attitude of swagger and braggadocio, but it is Billy who ends up winning the woman’s affection, not by coming on strong, but by displaying sensitivity and vulnerability. The courtship between Billy and Linda, the waitress, forms a tender counterpoint to the masculine hyperbole and arrogance the two men engage in over beer.

It also forms a counterpoint to Billy’s relationship with the Bride, a local eccentric who earns her moniker because she goes around in a filthy wedding dress. The reason for the Bride’s choice of attire is never made clear, other than Billy’s assumption that “[s]he was a certifiable loon.” Although it’s never stated outright, it seems obvious that the Bride has been injured by some unspecified incident in her past, which makes her treatment at the hands of Billy and Travis that much more reprehensible. Billy seduces the Bride after Travis claims to have slept with her; not only does Billy have sex with the Bride and summarily abandon her, he steals her money on the way out the door.

That the Bride has suffered some misfortune in her past seems undeniable; certainly there is no escaping the injury and hurt Billy is heir to as a young man. Vigna makes this more than clear in flashback scenes interspersed throughout the story. The summer Billy is thirteen, he ends up on a cattle ranch with Harley, who has promised the boy’s mother that he would look after him. The crew consists of a barbaric sociopath named Hops, who rapes Billy with a bottle, and threatens a young woman with rape while Billy looks on.

In the second instance, Billy menaces Hops with a scythe, an implement laden with all sorts of metaphoric implication. “I wanted to tell her that it’s okay,” Billy says about the victim of Hops’s assault, “it will all be okay, that it will pass, and you’ll be fine. It might take some time, but you’ll learn to slash it out of you bit by bit, leave it behind until maybe there’s nothing left. Nothing left to do but survive.” But this idea proves chimerical; Billy ends up abandoning the scene of the incipient rape, running away through the forest, “screaming at something, a past, a future, a life that seemed like no way out at all.”

Here, Vigna makes explicit the theme of paralysis: Billy is trapped in a cycle of unending violence, which he was initiated into as a young man, and which he is doomed to repeat over and over again as an adult. Vigna does not excuse Billy’s behaviour, or let him off the hook, but the violence and degradation that are visited on him as a teen go some distance in explaining his desensitized nature in the present.

The tragedy of Billy’s experience is that he does manage to find a healthy, caring relationship with Linda, but is unable to sustain it, choosing instead to break his oath of loyalty to her by degrading the Bride in order to feel superior to Travis. Although the possibility of redemption is offered him, Billy is ultimately too far gone to recognize or accept it.

“Learn anything at church this morning,” Harley asks Billy in one flashback scene. “Yeah,” Billy replies. “We’re all going to hell.”

“Amen to that,” is Harley’s only response.

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.