Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away supplies a perfect illustration of the conundrum that I often face when it comes to reviewing short story collections.

Of the twelve stories in the book, four are quite good, four more than good enough and four didn’t land very well with me. From a reading perspective, that is no problem — two out of three is just fine and, with short stories, even disappointing efforts are worth the relatively little time it takes to read them.

I usually like to go into some depth on three stories when I am reviewing a collection so visitors here get a sense of style and tone rather than trying to briefly mention every story in the book. And hence my quandary: Should I pick one from each category? Or offer thoughts on three of the four I liked?

Okay, I’m a chicken (and perhaps a bit lazy). It is both easier and more satisfying to explain why I liked a story than to try to pinpoint what didn’t work in one that I have already pretty much forgotten. So what you are about to read are my thoughts on three of the better stories that I found in Wangersky’s Giller-longlisted collection.

I should also note that my favorite story in the collection, “McNally’s Fair”, is not a fair reflection of the whole book. Wangersky is a newspaper columnist and editor in St. John’s, Nfld and most of these stories are set in that province — this one, however, takes place in the foothills just west of Calgary where I live.

McNally’s Fair is an amusement park, designed to attract visitors headed to the mountains (and Calgary families with kids). There is a real version, called Calaway Park, that I know well from my own days in the newspaper business. It opened to much fanfare some years back and then proceeded to go bankrupt every two or three years until the purchase price finally got low enough that the owners had a chance to break even. Here’s how this story opens:

Dennis Meaney was painting The Thunder apple green — a brilliant green that would make the roller coaster stand out even when the spring had brought the prairie into that brief emerald flush before the sun got around to browning it over. It wasn’t the colour he would have chosen. Mr. Reinhoudt had picked the colour, even though Dennis told him just looking at the paint samples hurt his eyes.

“Is s’pposed to,” Mr. Reinhoudt said, pulling hard on his small white beard. “S’pposed to get yer attention from the highway, and getcha in the lot wit’ the kids.” He said “kids” as if it had a z in it.

Wangersky may not live in Alberta, but he obviously spent some time here at some point. The prairie does get that brilliant green for a few weeks every summer, before burning to dull brown. And you can see the Rocky Mountains stretching along the horizon from the top of the roller coaster that Denny is painting — he looks at them with some longing from up there. I drove past Calaway Park a few weeks after reading the story and can report that the roller coaster (which is not a very big one, it has to be said) is indeed painted a particularly bilious green.

In the story, Reinhoudt has been carefully building the park for twenty years, adding a new ride whenever he can afford it. Dennis is the only full-time employee (Reinhoudt’s daughter, Michaela, runs the ticket booth) and he fell into the job by chance twelve years ago, arriving on site literally as the previous employee took off. For six months each year, Dennis does maintenance, painting, electrical work, looking after safety inspectors, sweeping up garbage — whatever is required. For the other six months, the park closes, the Reinhoudts return to Calgary for the winter and Dennis has the “fair” to himself.

Dennis is from Newfoundland and was heading West looking for work when he pulled in. He has a wife, Heather, back home in the town of Renews — they kind of fell into marriage the same way he fell into his job after all their classmates had hooked up. And while he headed home in the off-season for the first few years, they continued to grow apart and Heather eventually told him not to bother any more.

The story does have a dramtic turn and it does involve Michaela, an eight-year-old when Dennis arrived who is now twenty and has attracted his attention. Wangersky uses the drama to supply the final touches to his central character, someone whom I found as well developed as anyone could expect in an 18-page story.

“Echo” is a more typical example. Kevin Rowe is five-years-old — his family lives in a small, single storey house in St. John’s:

Kevin’s father drove from St. John’s to Boston and back, big rigs with chrome wheels, and every time he came home, Kevin would come into the living room and be startled to find his father in front of the television or hear his father in the bedroom, snoring, like he’d never really left. For Kevin, it was like going into the kitchen and finding there was an extra fridge where there hadn’t been one before. It was a magic trick, as if his father could just simply appear, again and again and again. By the time the surprise of it wore off, Kevin’s father would be ready to head back out on the road, hauling fish to Boston and furniture back again.

His father’s return frequently brings another aspect to Kevin’s world: the youngster is sent out to the front deck (he has created his own little world watching the street from there — it is where we first meet him). He is sent out again a few pages into “Echo”:

Kevin’s father hadn’t said anything when Kevin was in the kitchen, but a few moments later Kevin heard the deep rumble of his voice from the kitchen, not so much words as a deep straight line, all one note. And over the top of it, his mother’s thin voice, growing higher and then falling away like a ball bouncing up and down, up and down. It was like they were singing together, each one already sure where the other was going and just exactly where they would eventually end up.

Wangersky does have a dark side to him (as the developments from idyllic prairie to drama showed in “McNally’s Fair”) and “Echo” gets very dark indeed — it succeeds because the author is consistent in viewing the entire story through the eyes of an intelligent, but still only partially comprehending, five-year-old.

Unlike those two stories, “Sharp Corner” starts out very dark (and gets darker):

John thought of the sound as a soft, in-drawn breath, a breath that was always taken in that last single second before the other sounds came. He heard it right before the shriek of tires pulling sideways against their tread. John would hear the police use the word “yaw” for the striated mark left behind on the pavement, and he’d start building it into his own descriptions almost immediately. “When you see yaw, you know they were going too fast.” Just like that.

The tires made a shriek followed by the boxy thump of the car fetching up solid, side-on, in a crumpling great pile in the ditch.

Then, the horn — and often, screaming.

John goes out to the scene of that first accident on the sharp corner where he lives as a good citizen and curious observer more than anything else, but it sows the seeds of an obsession. Whenever he and his wife are out visiting, he can’t resist telling the story — slowly but surely, embellishing it — despite the fact that his wife glares at him every time and his listeners frequently depart before he is done.

That first accident features only one death — the next two result in two and three respectively. John’s obsession not only grows with each accident, the increasing severity and his ability to observe the scene (and develop even more embellishments) grow in tandem. The tragedies at the sharp corner take over his life — even if he doesn’t really realize it.

There was some surprise when Whirl Away (incidentally, there is no title story) showed up on the Giller list — it has been a good year for Canadian short story collections and this one just did not seem strong enough for many commenters and reviewers (including me, I must say). I would hazard the guess that it is the way that author Wangersky plays with the darkness of his vision that got him there — both Roddy Doyle and Gary Shteyngart on the Real Jury are no strangers to the dark side and saw talent and success in the way that Wangersky explores it.

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12 Responses to “Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky”

  1. David Says:

    A very fair review, Kevin, and thanks for refreshing my memory regarding ‘McNally’s Fair’, a story I had largely forgotten about but which was certainly one of the better ones in the book. The two others you pick out (along with ‘Little World’) were by far my favourites from the collection and I think if the rest of the book had been as good it would have better merited its place on the longlist. For me though there were far too many stories about car crashes and paramedics and three linked ones that didn’t particularly engage me either. I did like the twist endings to some of them though and the darkness was refreshing.
    But none of these stories wowed me in the way, say, “Large Garbage” did in Buffy Cram’s weird and wonderful ‘Radio Belly’ or “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale” (and half a dozen others) from Daniel Griffin’s ‘Stopping for Strangers’. Interestingly, nine Canadian collections made the Frank O’Connor longlist this year (I’ve read seven of them) and ‘Whirl Away’ was not among them.

    Anyway, as there are only two collections on the longlist this year I have high hopes for the Cary Fagan since I wouldn’t expect ‘Whirl Away’ to progress to the shortlist, and I think the shortlist ought to have at least one story collection – part of what makes the Giller so interesting is that it celebrates both the novel and the short story.

    Slightly off-topic, but I’m a third of the way through David Bergen’s ‘The Age of Hope’ at the moment. It may all go pear-shaped in the last two thirds of the novel, but from what I’ve read so far I think it is easily as strong as three of the four longlisted titles I’ve read.
    Last year, the Giller, the GGs and the Rogers Writers’ Trust all featured pretty much the same titles on their long- and shortlists. This year I have a feeling we could see much less consensus over which the best Canadian books of the year are.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: I had the same issues with the weaker stories. The linked ones (they are about a break-up, one of the “angles” is that the husband is a family lawyer) just fell flat. As for the others, Wangersky gets away with a fair bit of violence when he can make his characters more important (and interesting) than the carnage around them — sometimes that doesn’t happen.

    Thanks for the data that nine Canadian collections made the Frank O’Connor longlist, as that was new for me. I knew it was a good year for story collections here (although I have not read as many as the seven you have) but that is impressive.

    The director and program manager for the local writers’ festival were over yesterday and all three of us are at about the halfway point with the Giller. I told them that all five that I have read would rate 7 out of 10 if I used that scale — better than middling for sure, definite high points, but obvious weaknesses as well. And while I have hopes for more than a couple that I have yet to read, I suspect I am going to see the field as quite balanced — rather than one characterized by a couple of obviously better books.

    So I wouldn’t dispute your hunch that the prize lists will feature a more varied bunch than last year (which itself was a bit of an anomaly). From what I have read (both on the longlist and those that did not make it), jury “personality” and taste is going to be a significant factor. While part of me is disappointed that there doesn’t seem to have been a classic published in 2012, another part of me is delighted that Canadian literature has matured to the point that we have so many writers producing titles that are “better than just okay).

  3. Biblibio Says:

    “two out of three is just fine and, with short stories, even disappointing efforts are worth the relatively little time it takes to read them.”

    I don’t know how I feel about this. You’re absolutely right, but I’m having trouble accepting this kind of statement, which feels a bit like admitting that short story collections are always going to have duds. Not even relative duds – straight-up disappointing stories. Which is obviously not true, because some collections are very nicely consistent in their high quality. I guess it bothers me that we can forgive authors for writing a few bad short stories if they wrote a few more good stories… Anyways, I just don’t know what to think. Hence the rambling.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Biblibio: I hadn’t intended the observation to come out quite as negative as it did. The four at the bottom end weren’t duds for sure — they just didn’t succeed as well as the other eight did (and four of those were better than the other four).

    I do think that is the fate of most story collections — for all but a very few (Light Lifting, reviewed on this site, is one), I do find there is some variance in quality and I expect that. I suspect someone who is more devoted to the short story form than I am would experience that less often. He would have the ability to look at each story on its merits, while my inclindation is to look at the collection as a whole, acknowledging that I have my favorites.

    Perhaps that explains why, even with story collections, I have a bias towards those featuring linked stories (The Meagre Tarmac and The View From Castle Rock are two reviewed here) — the stories add up to a whole. That, of course, is a self-defeating argument from me: I like them because they are more “novel-like” and I tend to judge them as a novel.

  5. buriedinprint Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the landscape and site that inspired “McNally’s Fair”, particularly the detail about the green paint! (For those who are just as tickled by this as I, there are images to be found online by searching the park’s name.)

    What I think is particularly remarkable about this collection is that the pacing and characterization pulls the reader through consistently; even in the stories which I enjoyed less (we share one favourite: “Sharp Corner”); these are disturbing and unsettling situations and stories, but I wouldn’t have left any one of them unfinished.

    I think it’s strange that when an author has published a dozen books, we expect to like some more than others; we are more likely to say that certain elements simply appealed to us more than others when speaking of a few favourites amongst a stack of books, and that doesn’t necessarily extend to the idea that those other books just weren’t as well written (though sometimes it does, too). But when speaking of stories in a collection, we expect to like them all equally, from beginning to end.

    Do you think it might be harder to define the subjective elements in our responses to short stories than it is in considering our responses to novels, because as soon as we’ve responded positively to one of the stories we expect the same sort of response to all of the others?

    I can see all the elements that you admire in “Echo” and I do think he maintains that perspective brilliantly, but I wouldn’t choose it as a favourite. Whereas, “Little World” really stands out for me, particularly the way that he writes the dialogue (perhaps I should say ‘monologue’) and paces the story with it and manages to hint at the little world beyond that single voice. The skill required for the two stories seems similar, requiring a balancing act between information seen and understood (in the boy’s POV) and the information shared or held back (in the woman’s POV), and I can imagine a little checklist of qualities with the same number of ticks for each of these stories, but I would still point to “Little World” first.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: I agree completely with your point about ranking novels from an author (see my Ian MacEwan review a few posts back). So I don’t think “ranking” stories in a collection puts down those that don’t make the list immediately. Perhaps with a second read or a different frame of mind the ranking would change.

    Having said that, your comments about “Little World” illustrate my original point — when I was writing the review, it was either “Echo” or that one. And so far no one has found the “family law” set to be outstanding.

    My fellow Shadow Giller judge Trevor at Mookse and Gripes runs a regular feature where he posts the short story (or stories) from the New Yorker each week. I commented early on in his project but have been a lurker ever since — the comments that he gets on his site show that there are some people at least who like to dive into the detail of any story that they read. I stopped commenting because I just don’t pay that amount of attention to a single short story. I have no complaint with those who do, but they read from a different perspective than I do.

  7. buriedinprint Says:

    So, now I’m curious, which were the four that didn’t strike a chord with you?

    One thing that impacted my response to the “family law” set was that, relatively speaking, the dramatic element is less extreme; after the horrors of the earlier stories, the life of a divorce attorney seemed tame, whereas in another context, I might have responded differently. I did appreciate the irony atop irony detail at the end, and I absolutely love it when stories intersect so when I recognized that happening later in the collection I got a little thrill from it, but in discussing the collection as a whole it seemed misleading to draw attention to these because the “whirl” factor in the others was so much more pronounced. It makes me wonder how the ordering of the collection might have changed my expectations.

    I used to follow and enjoy Trevor’s commentary but then I let my New Yorker sub lapse; maybe after prizelist season I’ll get back to that. But, oh, so many magazines. (A nice “problem” to have, really.)

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I was afraid that someone would ask that question. I don’t like to focus on what failed to work for me from an author who has obvious talent but, yes, I had the list prepared in case someone wanted me to point to what did not work. That would be “911″, “Family Law”, “No Harm, No Fowl” and “Open Arms”.

    And please don’t ask why (but by all means offer dissenting opinions). I’d have to go back to re-read them and I am not sure I want to invest the time.

    I do agree that the “whirl” factor is what is missing from these stories. I contemplated trying to explain the title in the original review (Wangersky hints at it in his epigraph “For Leslie, who whirls”) but didn’t want to extend the review. For what it is worth, I think the title is an apt description of a common theme in the successful stories of the book, but you don’t realize that until you have completed it.

    The stories that work do “whirl” either with an outrageous premise at the start or (more frequently) a development that occurs during the story. The ones that were less impressive for me were more like the dodg’ems at McNally’s Fair than the roller-coaster.

  9. loscosas Says:

    funny, 911 was my favorite of the stories.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Loscosas: That is another great thing about story collections: ones that land flat with some readers turn out to be the favorite of others.

  11. buriedinprint Says:

    I was surprised, but not disappointed either, to see that this collection made the shortlist; I’m still reading through the rest of the longlist, so I haven’t gone back to re-read any of these yet, but I’ve thought back to events and characters in them on occasion. Hopefully the shortlisting will attract new readers to the work!

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: I was a little surprised as well. Having said that, the stories that I thought were very good are living on quite well in memory, which is always a good sign for a story collection. It won’t be my choice for the Prize, but I was quite happy to see it move forward.

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