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Hard-Hitting New Fiction

Front&Centre Book Reviews Issue #22

Book Reviews

The Year She Left

By Kerry Kelly

Darkstar Fiction, p. 240, $19.95

Review by Bill Brown

In talking about his song, “The Traitor,” Leonard Cohen said, “It’s about the feeling we have of betraying some mission we were mandated to fulfil and that we could not fulfil.” He went on to say, “The real mandate is not to fulfil it but is the deeper courage to stand guiltless in the predicament in which we find ourselves.”

Kerry Kelly, in The Year She Left, gives us the predicaments of Stuart and Katie and we watch them thrash and wallow in them over the course of a single year. Ticking off the months of the Gregorian calendar seems to be the only order in the lives of these two aimless thirty-somethings. Through many losses and missteps, we watch as they are buffeted by circumstances, loved ones, and history and each have their own problems getting out of bed in the morning. It seems that to shave or not to shave has little meaning – until each is reminded of the human links that matter. And even then, it’s in the few moments of clarity between humans that each can hear what Camus called “the tremendous cry of hope” found in religious existentialism.

Kelly’s throng of characters includes a delightful sketch of three generations of Stuart’s family. We have a mother, aunt, and great aunt painted in bright colours and though they repeatedly bounce off one another, together the trio embodies several levels of the self-awareness that might be needed to get us through the dark spots in life. With all of her characters suffering loss in myriad forms, Kelly examines their responses: breathe, give up, struggle, pray.

Kelly’s array of characters are artfully drawn: the imperious great aunt who can cut through hard butter with a spoon, the forlorn mother, the chilly lawyer-boss, the frank roommate, the lover-turned-best-friend. They all, in the end, demonstrate the power of understanding that there is little we can do other than simply hold or stand by one another when the lights go out.

Toronto is not kind to these people; in fact, it seems an additional weight crushing their lives. And without resorting to much in the way of traditional “literary embellishment” Kelly carves out the despair found underneath lives that might, from the city’s street, pass as normal.

A love story, of sorts; just don’t expect one with either the usual heart or the usual arrow. For Front&Centre readers, this is “hard-hitting fiction” that shows that even those with a college degree bleed as profusely as do other sorts of losers.

The Hunch

The Hunch

By Seymour Shubin

Murder Slim Press, p. 184, £10.95

Review by Matthew Firth

Seymour Shubin’s The Hunch reveals a novelist in full control and obviously accomplished within the genre that he writes. This is not to suggest that The Hunch is formulaic or predictable; no, what I’m saying is that Shubin executes his craft with precision and verve. The novel is also an entertaining and gratifying literary work. Perhaps I am wrong to use the word genre because it tends to summon assumptions. While Shubin’s crime novel has elements of suspense and intrigue and is centred on a murder, there are layers to the story that make it sophisticated and accessible. The Hunch is also a love story and it reveals a lot about friendships, egos, aspirations (fulfilled and otherwise) and the loneliness often at the core of our cluttered yet dislocated 21st century lives.

The Hunch is set in a prosperous Philadelphia suburb, a seemingly unlikely hub for what goes down. A typically normal middle-aged couple – Jon and Cindy – are the central characters. Their daughter is poised to marry and give birth. Jon is a dentist. Cindy is trying to launch an acting career. Everything appears nearly perfect. Their best friend Colin Ryan is a crime writer with close ties to homicide detectives. Gradually, Shubin brings this novel to a boil by interweaving his characters’ dreams, doubts and suspicions while ratchetting up the tension. I know I’m not supposed to reveal too much of the plot when it comes to crime novels but a central tenet of the book is whether love can overcome a killer’s passion. That and whether friendship and loyalty are more compelling than justice. Add to this Shubin knows when to throw some curves into what looks at times to be a linear storyline and readers will be – to use a cliché – on the edges of their seats wondering what comes next. The suspense never abates, down to the novel’s very last line.

The book is not without some faults. A minor quibble – the dialogue can be a bit parochial at times (e.g., “Oh, Jon, how I love to hear it.” or “Oh, darling, how are you? Oh yes. Wonderful. Oh that’s so good to hear.”). And about 140 pages in, the pace dies down too much before ramping back up over the last 25 pages or so. Still, this is another winner from Britain’s bold Murder Slim Press, proving again that it is an astute publisher with a keen eye for works that mingle blood, guts, art and entertainment.

86'd By Dan Fante

86’d

By Dan Fante

Harper Perennial, p. 245, $16.99

Review by Matthew Firth

I’ll cut to the chase; there is no other writer on the planet close to Dan Fante when it comes to literature written with power, passion and panache. Pound for pound, Fante is the man, the champ of bad-assed literary pugilism. He is descended from the salty greats: Hubert Selby, Charles Bukowski and, of course, his own father John Fante. Dan Fante’s new novel is simply a rip-roaring romp, from life with drunks and guttersnipes to quiet redemption when a madman finally – though perhaps only temporarily – quells the voice of insanity in his head and accepts peace on his own terms. And this novel is hilarious. I started reading it on a train to Montreal and was laughing out loud by page two:

I printed out Canonball’s e-mail, underlined the word eventually in black marker, then taped the goddamn thing to the wall in my room, above my desk. Eventually I’d starting fucking dead chimpanzee corpses too – eventually.

86’d centres on the misadventures of Fante’s literary alter ego Bruno Dante, a man with a rabid temper, booze and prescription drug issues, and a willingness to fuck just about anything when he’s truly messed up. And Dante gets messed up when life fucks him over, which seems to happen at an inordinate rate for the poor sod.

The novel starts with a letter from his publisher – referred to in the quote about chimps – telling him that his book is on hold. Dante is a writer or wants to be; he’s not sure. But Dante knows he needs coin to fuel his frantic life, so he lands a gig in the chauffeur business, driving for a small company in Los Angeles. The company is run by a nearly seven-foot tall dude named David Koffman with an ostentatious predisposition to wearing Tom Wolfe like suits and other gaudy attire. Dante knows Koffman from New York. Their meeting to consummate a business relationship over a meal is pure hilarity – I could quote a couple pages chock full of Fante’s blistering, sardonic humour from this scene. Suffice it to say fellow passengers on that Montreal-bound train stared at me, curious to know what all the fuss was about. I could have explained but I was too engrossed in this superb novel to look up at all those suckers reading fucking Dan Brown novels or goo from La Presse or The Globe and Mail. Had I looked up and been so inspired, I could see myself having a Bruno Dante moment, hollering at all in the train car that Dan Fante is the best literary shit-slinger since Selby kicked the can.

Back to the book. Dante’s job driving for Dav-Ko forces him to live on the premises of the chauffeur business. He has semi-managerial responsibilities in addition to driving. As such, early on, he’s forced to endure a surgically-enhanced, fake-Brit accented flirt dispatcher who calls herself Portia Danforth-Keats. Their relationship provides more humour and insanity. Fante is a master at exposing LA fakery in characters like Portia and Koffman, making it appear that the apparent lunatic Dante is the only truly sane character in this book.

Dante meets up with a retired literary editor – a fiery old dame – on the job. Driving her to medical appointments, he befriends the old woman and her model granddaughter, giving Dante a chance to break out of the chauffeuring world. Meanwhile, his boozing and self-destructive/borderline criminal behaviour threatens to chase him from the business for good. To save his bacon, Dante is forced to try AA, something he has failed at numerous times in the past, because, again, he sees it as just another arena of fakes and fools. This is when Dante sorts out his life on his own terms.

Dan Fante is on top because his fiction is full of life, as well as being funny, brash and poetic. 86’d is out with Harper Perennial. Like Tony O’Neill before him, Fante has moved out of brawling in the back alleys of the small press world to the main stage. But his fiction has not lost its punch. Front&Centre readers, you must check out Fante’s work – this new novel, plus three older novels that Harper Perennial has acquired the rights to and will reissue in December. You will laugh your ass off and marvel at Fante’s skill and power.

I Like It Like That

Edited by Richard Labonté and

Lawrence Schimel

Arsenal Pulp Press, p. 231, $18.95

Review by Bill Brown

Richard Labonté and Lawrence Schimel have partnered once again (The Future is Queer and First Person Queer). This time they have gathered 34 true tales to explore gay male desire. What we have is an examination that is at once provocative and insightful. If you are straight and a keen reader you may find these stories deepen your understanding of desire’s commonalities; if gay, you may come away with that and a semi.

With their past anthologies having set a high watermark, you’ll not be disappointed with either this collection’s overall quality of writing – including two graphic stories – or its breadth of territory: fetishes, “isms” such as age and fat, tenderness, violence, fear, arcane language, the Body Electric phenomenon, even a how-to (get your plumber to drop his drawers). And once taken into the darker recesses of another’s desires; you may be surprised by the inner light shed by some of these writers.

Shawn Levine, in “Number Three”, recounts his “third-time-lucky” visit to a French steam bath where no one wants to kiss. (Having been overdone on greetings, it’s as though the French, in steam baths at least, would rather any kissing be saved for their asses.) In such hostile territory Levine shows how desire can weaken the pull of one’s moral compass; a push and pull that appears in many of the tales.

For Nathan Burgoine everything of importance was present in the first touch. For him, it was done in black marker – at once dazzling, fear-filled, permanent – and then used as a yardstick for the rest of his life.

Steve MacIsaac’s wickedly clever “Amanuensis,” in comic strip format, is both amusing and deeply felt. Its metaphoric title guides us through its unanswered question.

There are even some great one-liners: “The erotic is Monet in reverse: It makes sense only up close.” Or, “The thing itself; unaccommodated man.” This being King Lear pointing out the vulnerability of the naked Edgar on a heath.

This anthology includes everything from overblown exposition to plots delivered in so straight a line that the story is left to explain all. One example of the latter is Jay Starre’s single night in a steam bath and how it liberated him sexually. Entering, he was afraid of being caught out as gay, keen, desperate, or horny but by the end of the night, on his stomach, legs spread, he was ready to welcome the world. You connect the dots yourself.

However, Jeff Mann’s sweet recounting of lovers who play at master and slave proves to be a fiction inside a story. In the process, Mann reveals that he’s turned on by “Whatever makes a strong man most helpless.” But his real life, like most, is complicated. His lover wants only “vanilla sex,” so Mann chooses to express his deepest sexual desires by writing erotic fiction. Don’t worry; neither is hard done by: His feeling of “quietly starving” and its resultant “keen hunger” are what keep Mann hard, his mate happy and Mann’s fetish from cutting him off entirely.

This anthology is a no-holds-barred romp. Maybe for their next one, Labonté and Schimel would consider including the rest of the English-speaking world and let us consider what goes on when we cross wider cultural divides. But this is a terrific collection – well-paced and wide-ranging. And though you’ll find most of these tales short enough for the bathroom library (some are only a few pages), if you’re gay – ahem – you’ll want to exercise restraint.

The Night is a Mouth

By Lisa Foad

Exile Editions, p. 144, $21.95

Review by Matthew Firth

I have what I think is a pretty good bullshit detector. For example, out of curiosity when I Googled Lisa Foad before reading her short story collection, I was bombarded by ebullient praise and critics tripping over each other to hoist this wee book on high. I was instantly suspicious. I started nosing around the rest of the book. Sometimes I check out the Acknowledgements, author bio, and jacket blurbs with more attention than usual. My spider senses started tingling. There was something about the author’s tough girl photograph and blunt, five-word bio (“Lisa Foad lives in Toronto.” – of course she does; where else would a bitching young Canadian writer reside?). I picked away further. The inside jacket blurb and quotes are full of the usual adjectives (“intoxicating, potent, fearless, sexy, lucid, gritty, poetic …” blah blah blah). I checked out her age via the publication page – 32, a pup by CanLit standards, a veritable greenhorn. The dedication hints at the author’s egomania – who the hell dedicates a book to “Angie & me”? I smelled a rat. But the dead giveaway is in the Acknowledgements: a full page and a bit of gushing tripe that reads like Foad is accepting an Oscar: “I’m very grateful … for his diligence in detail and design … for his invaluable insight and brilliant counsel, the care and acuity with which he delved into and nurtured this collection … for his exhaustive engagement with several drafts … for her concentrated contemplation of the text … for deliberating early drafts …” Christ, I could use a draught after suffering this. Okay, forget Oscar – Foad sounds like she’s accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. She wrote a freakn short story collection for crying out loud; she didn’t single-handedly end world hunger and then in her spare time solve the climate crisis. Fuck! Say thank you if you must but spare us the pointless, purple prose (there; I too can do alliteration).

The Acknowledgements tell you what you need to know: this is self-indulgent fiction from a young naval-gazing writer in love with manipulating language and ignoring narrative. Foad’s fiction has all the trappings of immature writing: it’s onanistic (I know a few big words too), showy and shallow. The latter is my biggest beef with this book; Foad says very little but tries to say it in a sophisticated, flowery way, hoping this will compensate for the work’s lack of substance. I’m too exhausted by the book to go over the stories. I can’t even call them stories: it’s all just garishly adorned language and contrived Toronto hipster semi-weirdness. Yuck. Fuck. Next …

The English Stories

By Cynthia Flood

Biblioasis, p. 217, $19.95

Review by Bill Brown

What a deep pleasure to read Cynthia Flood’s twelve short stories. Don’t be fooled by the dull title, these stories are the real deal –hard-hitting fiction at its best. The darkness, violence and despair may not be worn on the sleeve but it’s a shallow reader who won’t be troubled by these characters.

Set in the early 1950s, this linked collection is told largely from the point of view of an adolescent Canadian girl, Amanda, who accompanies her parents (feckless father and steamrolling mother) for a couple of years in England. Adding to Amanda’s perspective, this collection draws on other narrative voices from both the girls’ school and the residential hotel where the family passes its stay. Private school? Suburban England in the 1950s? Teens and pensioners? Pretty heady stuff, eh? Well, in Cynthia Flood’s hands, yes it is.

A dozen stories, told from different points of view, each peeling back layers of snobbery, hypocrisy, violence, intolerance and meanness. We see these faults passed from one adult to another and on down through the generations. Like cooped-up hens, in both school and hotel, it’s the most severely wounded who get the worst of it: censure, isolation, humiliation, mockery.

But it’s not all dark and stormy; Flood’s characters are varied and richly drawn. Two of my favourites are the Talbot sisters. One of them remarks of a fellow guest’s underwhelming achievement: “The captain has tried and failed to scale the peak. Now he’s going to settle in the valley.” She was, in fact, speaking about most of Flood’s characters who dance, nosh, solve puzzles, chatter, perform and sip tea across the top of a pit of dark deeds and failures. Everyone seems terrified of falling in – no doubt suspecting that should anyone notice they’d either step on clutching fingers or, worse, look away.

In “The Usual Accomplishments” a cryptic crossword is used to untangle the knot tied by years of discord between these Talbot sisters. The puzzle speaks too much that’s wrong here: the gravity conferred on a game that promises to point out the limitations of others, the obvious divide between the twins, and the exclusion of those who don’t know the rules. It’s a brilliant and satisfying story that reveals Flood’s authorial maturity and writing so perfectly pitched that it draws no attention to itself.

Once, when speaking of one of her collections, Mavis Gallant said of short stories: “They can wait.” She meant they needn’t be read back-to-back. Read one and put the book down. But with The English Stories, you could go either way. With their compressed setting and time, their easy flow from one to the other, and their web-like intricacy, a single-sit reading, though disturbing, would be immensely satisfying.