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.