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Reprinted from Issue #14
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Toy Gun
By Dennis E. Bolen
Anvil Press, p. 336, $26.00

Review by Philip David Alexander

Picture this: You work a dirty and difficult job on Vancouver’s mean streets. Your boss Myra is a by-the-book woman who watches you like a hawk. Your caseload includes a crackhead security guard who is still pulling robberies and thinks he’s got you fooled, a repeat offender hooker and the damaged son of a criminal who was once under your watch. This is the world of Barry Delta, parole officer and protagonist in Dennis E. Bolen’s third Delta instalment Toy Gun. The first two Delta books were Stupid Crimes and Krekshuns. Both offered up engaging plots and were peopled with vivid characters. Delta himself was (and is) tough, philosophical, cunning and surprisingly, vulnerable. Bolen really mines the inner workings of Delta in this story. In the process, he delivers a two-fisted character study that puts the reader right on the damp and gloomy streets that Delta trudges.

Delta still dodges people who would like to see him dead and there is definitely plenty of action and chiselled, almost hardboiled, prose:

“Barry parked on an eastside street so iffy he wondered if he would ever see the government car again. In this particular block he had once heard gunshots in the middle of the day. Down the street the stripped hulk of a not so old SUV rusted on bare rims. Hookers stood on opposing curbs. Pugilistic men with shaved heads patrolled in cars with blacked-out windows. Asian gangsters dined for free in terrified noodle houses.”

But to call Toy Gun a crime or procedural novel would be to sell the whole work short. Toy Gun is about a man who clashes with the people he needs most and bends over backwards to offer the often undeserving reprobates on his caseload a second kick at the can. In Delta, Bolen gives us a man who is filled with both compassion and dedication for all that his job entails, with anger and confusion for the fallout that has poisoned his personal life.

One of the chains Delta carries is his womanizing. Consider this excerpt where Barry Delta is pondering an argument he’s just had with his wife Tanya:

“ … for a moment the intimacy of their struggle moved Barry, brought him closer to Tanya, yet the iniquitous presence of others in the room – known by him, hidden from Tanya – scorched him like acid. Sitting with them were all of his female friends … He was nauseated and wallowing, a swimmer in refuse with no chance of rescue and years gone by without a clean breath.”

Toy Gun is filled with powerful moments that add up to knowing Delta so well you can’t help but hang on, white knuckled, to see if he works it all out. This shadowing character study, with its beautifully rendered moments between Delta and his wives and lovers, might put the reader in mind of Denis Johnson but the overarching theme of a hard man pursuing a fleeting redemption, attempting to bust out of an emotional jail he helped create, is pure James Elroy. And when it comes to novels filled with criminality and complex characters, I can't think of a higher compliment. On a sad note, Toy Gun is reportedly the last of the Barry Delta trilogy. Let’s hope Bolen has second thoughts and decides for at least a quintet.

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The History of Vegas
By Jodi Angel
Chronicle Books, p. 187, $19.95 (US)

Review by Matthew Firth

Jodi Angel’s debut short story collection The History of Vegas is a bit of an odd mix. Her writing style is quite finely-crafted, in the usual writing school manner, but her subject matter is down and dirty; from-the-gut. It results in lucid storytelling centred on unconventional characters and themes; a literary style married to marginal subjects.

By and large it works for Angel but I also think her polished prose belies her gritty subject matter somewhat. Angel’s writing is so smooth that it works against her, rendering her edgy subject matter blunted and less authentic. With fiction chock full of adolescent longing, sex, violence, stupid petty crimes, drugs, cheap motel rooms, pet abuse, game shows, shitty jobs and muscle cars you expect a prose style equally rough-around-the-edges. I’m labouring the point here, but there’s something about Angel’s squeaky-clean literary style that takes the air out of her salty subject matter. Maybe it’s my anti-academic bias at work – I just have a hard time fully accepting her nasty themes and plots when the prose is so well schooled. I’m being too harsh, too critical of Angel’s ability to write well. I’ll drop it.

So, the stories, then: as mentioned we’re dealing with the dispossessed and marginalized here, characters who have not been loved, who wallow in fleeting pleasures, who take what they can from each other without worrying about the consequences. The story “Donny” is a good example. Donny is Nicki’s creepy, horny teenaged boyfriend. Nicki’s messed-up younger brother Tony looks up to Donny and Donny humours him in the process. But what really concerns Donny is little more than using Tony’s older sister to get his rocks off. Angel portrays the teenaged fixation with instant gratification perfectly in this story.

“Supplement” is a great story that mingles farm working with sordid sexual goings-on. It also provides one of the book’s longer-lasting images: that of Husso, a Basque farmhand who castrates lambs with his teeth. Angel strikes a similar vein in “The Skin from the Muscle” when, in precise detail, she describes how to skin a buck when a pair of female strangers show up with their kill at the remote home of a teenaged boy. In this story, and in the title story, characters ease into sex as if they’re stepping out for a smoke. Boy meets girl. Boy says, something like, “Hey, let’s hang out.” And the next thing you know they’re banging away with adolescent fervour. It’s a bit of stretch or maybe I’m just too far removed from those teenaged days of perpetual hard-ons.

“Portions” is another standout story also representative of Angel’s dark subject matter: an older sister teaches her overweight younger sister to vomit, to purge after binging. Drugs, greed, the American racial divide and brotherhood are at the centre of Angel’s quietly tragic story “Push”.

Overall, this is a strong collection – certainly better than most debuts and certainly edgier than most of the wishy-washy fiction that finds print in Canada. But still, I stop short of trumpeting The History of Vegas fully on the grounds that Angel’s style and subject matter are too much at odds. It’s like whisky: for fiction that deals with the seedier side of life, even if it’s the expensive stuff, it should burn a little going down.

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No Margins: Writing Canadian Fiction in Lesbian
Edited by Catherine Lake and Nairne Holtz
Insomniac Press, p. 314, $21.95

Review by Bill Brown

No Margins is set up as an alphabetical series of writers responding to an interview/questionnaire, followed by an excerpt or story, finishing off with a biographical note – all sandwiched between a capable introduction by Susan Knutson and a “selective Annotated Bibliography of Canadian Literature with Lesbian Content” by the well-read Nairne Holtz. Begging comparison with the recently published Writers Talking from Porcupine’s Quill, No Margins would have benefited from the assured editorial touch of John Metcalf. While Writers Talking offers up a smooth trip through well-crafted stories, No Margins, though exhilarating in spots, makes for an uneven ride over a mix of stories and excerpts from novels.

For a successful example of the latter look no further than Dionne Brand’s excerpt from In Another Place, Not Here. You’ll find language moving lushly across the page, the rise and fall of a West Indian lilt tossing the reader from one passion to another. It’s a heartless reader who won’t want to read the entire novel.

Another is Marion Douglas’s deeply humorous excerpt from Dance Hall Road. Through a splendid evocation of a humid southern Ontario summer, she explores the pinhead on which both “funny” and “sinister” can dance at once. Her snappy prose and unusual imagery, used to flesh out complex difficulties with a few bold and humorous strokes, remind one of Elise Levine or Terry Griggs. Take the two old men in a corner store: “Soft-spined in appearance, creatures who had just yesterday made the switch from water to land and weren’t quite sure what to make of the move.” As with Brand’s piece, you’ll need wild horses to keep you back from the rest.

And don’t miss Jane Eaton Hamilton’s “Wart’s Ugly.” It’s a delightful story with a cast of whacky family members, including a mentally-ill mother and Wart, a tomboy daughter losing her hair. The story whirls around the friendship of Wendy and Wart in a skilled manner suggesting Hamilton is familiar with the gospel-according-to-Norman-Levine: The less said the better. So, like Wart, we’re never 100 per cent certain what’s what, but we sense the unease and suffering of both parents and the pain of kids blundering their way through love and lust. While there’s an inevitability to the conclusion, and the details remain elusive (like what happened to both mom and dad?), we do know that Wart digs a deep moat around herself, ending a brilliant and satisfying look at a girl’s first broken heart.

For these three alone No Margins is worth buying. But there’s more: The anthology kicks off with “A’thyraa” by Luanne Armstrong, an interesting formal period piece reminiscent of earlier queer writer Richard Armory. Less successful is Emma Donoghue’s excerpt, “Here and Now,” where we come close to Harlequin Romance, with its impossibly naïve back-and-forth of those recently fallen off the cliff of love. Even less successful: Lydia Kwa’s “Soft Shell,” a brief but contrived piece playing nightmares off daymares. Ditto Larissa Lai’s “The Sewing Box,” an excerpt from her novel-in-progress.

While intrigued by Daphne Marlatt’s “Update,” a raucous format made me thankful for its brevity. Shani Mootoo’s “The Upside-downness of the World as it Unfolds” is a disappointing contribution from a Giller shortlisted writer. She works with interesting characters but her narrative voice feels both distant and inconsistent (as in, she doesn’t know a chapatti but can pick out a cherdo or a patli from a hundred yards). Add in awkward imagery – “Stiff as an old piece of dried toast” and you’ve got the idea. Also, with Elizabeth Ruth’s “Tiny insurmountable hills” you know you’re in iffy water from the start with imagery like “Her words stuck like Elmer’s glue fastened them.”

And where’s the irrepressible Karen Tulchinsky of Five Books of Moses Lapinsky? Her “Ruined by Love” starts off slowly and stays there. Feels like a San Fran to Vancouver road trip with everyone asleep, including the driver. And Marnie Woodrow’s “Body Doubles,” about LA’s low-level has-beens spit out by the film industry, ends the anthology on an unfortunate note.

Finally, an excerpt from Ann-Marie MacDonald’s acclaimed Fall on Your Knees needs nothing more said. And in Ann Fleming’s “The Pear,” while not much happens, idealism and realism touch, spark and sizzle in a touching portrait of a woman too lonely for too long.

The anthology’s title describes these pieces as Canadian fiction in “lesbian.” Fortunately, for book sales, “Lesbian” sounds a lot like other languages: gay, straight, bi, ethnic, etc. This anthology, important as it is to the queer community, shows the lesbian sisterhood of writers, like all others, contains one part dazzling writing shooting through the roof and three parts spread around the rest of the house.

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Loose End
By Ivan E. Coyote
Arsenal Pulp Press, p. 176, $17.95

Review by Bill Brown

Coyote’s third collection is another terrific read. Imagine David Sedaris or Stuart McLean but with their barrels sawed off, an economy of words and a slip sliding of gender. Then add in a dozen of Dan Bushnell’s haunting black and white photos of Vancouver’s East End. The stories, both funny and poignant at once, draw from Coyote’s years of living in this notorious neighbourhood. By using both first person and real names she not only blurs the lines of fiction but also packs an added punch with these dazzling tales – none much longer than four pages (revealing their roots as pieces for Vancouver’s Xtra West). Unlike McLean’s, though, her treats can be swallowed whole, not chewed until your jaw aches.

Without preaching, she encourages us to let our true selves shine. Warts and all. No matter what. Not the easiest, but surely the more satisfying route. Black eyes aside.

Only thing better than reading Coyote is listening to her. But with Loose End’s close-up, narrative voice, this is a terrific approximation. You piggyback on her keen eye; zeroing in: “I took in the way he rested one hip higher than the other, how he lazily spun his stop sign in one buckskin-gloved hand, how stainless steel was wearing through the toes of his boots. Sexy boy.” – as though casting her eye over a Luca Signorelli painting, not a modern construction site.

This is a sure-footed storyteller. One you’ll follow effortlessly through 40 or so tales (and a couple of essays) on everything from bikers to babes, from young to old, gay to straight, and just about everything in between; including all you could want to know about cars and the tools to fix them.

So, if you’d like to laugh yourself to a higher plane of being, snap up Loose End and pour yourself a beer. And it doesn’t matter which team you play for, you’ll be marked as a philistine if you don’t find something here that knocks your socks off.

 

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Girls Closed In
By France Théoret
Guernica Editions, p. 116, $15.00

Review by Lorie Boucher

France Théoret’s Girls Closed In recounts a 16-year-old girl’s experience at a boarding school for teachers in 1950s Quebec. At a lean 116 pages, the novel is a spare interior monologue on solitude, identity, and the effects of confinement and extended introspection on a young psyche. Short, unadorned sentences carry the reader quickly through the mind of the unnamed narrator as she falls in love with, and is rejected by, Yolande, an elusive and detached classmate. Like a plain frame on an intricate painting, Théoret’s simple language sets off the larger ideas in her perceptive and thoughtful book.

The notion of solitude is threaded throughout the novel and ideally manifested in Yolande, a model of solitary calm. Yolande embodies a type of solitude that “does not confine you to boredom or insulation” – a “serene, personal kind of solitude.” The young narrator aspires to this self-contained detachment and attempts to adopt the external signs of internal satiety. But when Yolande charges her with superficiality and rejects her, she seeks solace outside of herself in a new group of friends. Solitude, the narrator later avers, is less a way of being than a way of perceiving: “My solitude was reconfiguring itself as a way of learning to see.” This evolution of the narrator’s perception of solitude is a good example of the nuanced assertions made throughout the novel. There is a depth and complexity to Théoret’s writing that rewards close reading.

There is also a certain claustrophobia to the novel that may encourage some readers to plough through the pages. I admit to coming to appreciate the novel only on a second reading. The themes of imprisonment and surveillance consume the text – the strict rules of the boarding school, the constant watchfulness of the nuns, and the physical confines of the grounds are echoed in Théoret’s description of just about everything else. Lines like “we were wrapped in our silence,” “shame hemmed me in,” and “she’d enclosed me in her decision” are enough to make you open a window. The layers of metaphor are better appreciated the second time around, however, and at 116 pages, there’s no harm in retracing a few steps.

But there is some semblance of freedom in the novel. Faced with an unchallenging and unmotivating academic year, the narrator decides to keep a “journal without deletions.” Through her writing, the narrator recovers some of the freedom lost to her environment and furthers her pursuit of the solitary ideal. “Writing was a solemn system of absolute solitude.” Reading plays a similar role throughout the novel. Through books, the narrator escapes her mundane classes and connects to the outside world. While literature as liberator is not a new concept, Théoret applies it skilfully to her purposes.

Girls Closed In is a serious and well-crafted novel. Théoret achieves an uncommon complexity and deserves credit for this multi-layered work.

 

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Eighty-Sixed: A Compendium of the Hapless
By Brian Ames
Word Riot Press, p. 200, $11.00 (US)

Review by Megan Butcher

Eighty-Sixed is a collection of stories about people who have refused, are refusing; those who have been refused, rebuffed. As you can imagine, it’s an occasionally disturbing read, and Brian Ames doesn’t pull his punches, but delivers them in crisp prose. In the best stories of the 22 collected here, Ames creates situations that are just a little off. They feel real, like it might be happening down the street, but then one detail makes his reality true, and yours a dissonant knock inside your skull: it could be an unexpected word or gesture, or, as in “Monocle”, an unusual physical characteristic that forms the backbone of the story but doesn’t touch the narrative.

Elk hunting plays a role in quite a few of the stories, giving the collection a through-line in terms of setting and tone. My favourite story of the collection is about Jackson “Ajax” Romero, a former failed baseball hero, former successful barfly and current hunter. Whether he’s a success at that is left up to the reader. The elk’s progress through the hunt is intertwined to good effect with Romero’s life as a baseball player. The two narratives ricochet off each other, point and counterpoint. Ames uses the mythical underpinnings of the story to amplify small but important aspects of Romero’s character, rather than making a heavy-handed one-to-one comparison. 

Not all of the stories are this successful. None are terrible but this would have been a stronger collection without the flat obviousness of “Ten Dollar Dog” or the affected weirdness of “Physics Package” – in the case of the latter, the one “off detail” is pushed too far and so the story just seems fake and flat. Occasionally, he tries too hard for a poetic image: “Her outrage faded like the aftermath of fingers retrieved from a pail of water” (p. 67). Not only does this simile use too many words and awkward structure to explain a simple image, it’s not true. When you remove your fingers from a pail of water, the initial aftermath is a vacuum. Sure, the rings slowly fade but why conjure vacuums at all if you want a slow fade?

Overall, though, Ames is a great writer, with a knack for situation, setting and character. I’ll read many stories in this collection again and wait patiently for more.

 

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Darwin Alone in the Universe
By M.A.C. Farrant
Talonbooks, p. 160, $17.95

Review by Megan Butcher

The back cover blurb of Darwin Alone in the Universe makes this book sound serious, deeply philosophical, and really, rather pretentious and dull. A singular disservice, since Darwin – while often bleak, while often touching on very serious subjects, such as existence and the substance of history and the prevailing view of the universe – is also funny. Laugh out loud funny. Uncomfortable funny. Farrant has a light touch with irony, thank god, and knows how to handle juxtaposition deftly enough that her chosen elements are both perfect and jarring.

Take “The Advice Giver.” Three questions: a man who reveals he has no soul wants relationship advice, another man wants the Leviathan removed from his wife’s tongue (“verbal monsters in the mouth that can’t be rubbed off”), a woman considers ECT to shock her husband into wanting bondage. Farrant uses the banality of the Q&A format to underscore the ridiculous ways in which we consider these matters of soul, language and sex. And her lists! Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good list; but in this format, the few words of each bullet sing oddly on their own and make a disturbing 10-point melody together. By the time you get to the last item of the last list, you have a history of surreal meaning ringing through the collection.

Her language is beautiful, her words chosen well. She’s not a showy writer but uses language to set tone and space and sneak up into the brains of her readers. The stories alone give snapshots of people, places, feelings incarnate – none complete a narrative arc on their own but they’re perfectly formed to call up echoes of personal experience. They tap into narratives being formed within the reader. This gives them a currency and an emotional resonance that stayed with me long after I finished the last story.

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Hammered Out
Edited by Frances Ward
Peter Street Publishing, p. 128, $12.00 

Review by Mark McCawley

My first impression of Hammered Out is of a collection with somewhat of a conflicted identity. Is it an anthology or a magazine? In this case, it’s both. Hammered Out is a Hamilton-area literary magazine that normally features poetry – yet once a year they publish fiction. This is their second annual fiction special: a sampler of writings with no pre-set theme or genre – other than, perhaps, “this insanity we call life” – or so states the editor, Frances Ward.   Ward’s twenty-two disparate selections reveal a veritable grab bag of genres, prose-styles, narrative techniques and thematic concerns, spanning the gamut. The stories range from modernist and postmodernist fiction to magic realism to satire to gothic-noir to historical and speculative fiction. The most striking feature of this collection is its diversity. The only thing held in common by the twenty-two contributors is that they all hail from, or have some connection to, Hamilton, Ontario (though this is not a criteria for inclusion).   Naturally, with a collection this diverse, not every story will be to every reader’s taste. My own tastes and biases drew me away from some pieces and closer to others. Still, there are several standouts in this collection.   “The Idea of Brahms” by David Dawson is a story about failed parental expectation and how said expectations resound through childhood and well into adulthood. The main character, Albert Johannes Wesnicki, will strike a familiar chord among many readers. His father wanted “either an Einstein or a Brahms, take your pick”. He had just been reading that the musical part of the brain was very close to the mathematics part, and a long way away from the hockey part.   “Smooth With The Ladies” by Matthew Firth is a cautionary tale about looking to get lucky with the ladies on a cold Friday night in the middle of February when yesterday’s paycheque is a wallet bulging fat with cash and Monday morning looks a long way off.   “Outside” by Salvatore Difalco is by far my favourite piece in the anthology. It’s an unsympathetic treatment of lower-class urban life. It neither glorifies nor laments the grubbiness of its main character Larry’s daily existence as a young offender. Difalco draws the reader into a world and an experience few will know outside of the correctional system. Larry’s conflicting expectations of life and death in the urban jungle are juxtaposed with those expectations that the youth justice system attempts to enforce. For example, Larry’s counsellor, Miguel – described by Difalco as “a compassionate goon” – insists that the premise “a single act of kindness yields two more acts of kindness in return” will set Larry on a course with only one true, real outcome.

If Frances Ward’s selection hammers out one thing for certain, it is that there are many writers in Hamilton to watch.

Read reviews from Issue #13