These stories turn on moments in which their characters are yanked from their everyday existences.
It’s there, and the reader understands its dimensions, but the focus is elsewhere.
“Hard, steady work, and no money in it either. When there was fish, there was no price for it. When there was a price, there wasn’t any fish. But you’re not here to hear about that, I know. And we’re almost there anyway.”
That’s Helen Goodyear, in the story “Little World”.
She’s giving another character a tour of sorts, but some passages from this story serve as a short tour of Russell Wangersky’s stories as well.
For what Helen Goodyear’s audience wants to hear about is not the everyday life of a fisherman’s wife but an act of violence that she has witnessed.
This requires some adjustment on the listener’s (and reader’s) part, because circumstances have altered.
“There’s a current right across the face of the wharf, and you have to watch it coming in and aim your bow as if you’re trying to hit the right-hand side square on.” (“Little World”)
Accident, death, seasonal rituals, divorce, the black marks that screeching tires burn into pavement, leave-takings: the stories in Whirl Away are rooted here.
Maybe someone witnesses an act of violence from a window or goes into the yard to avoid witnessing such an event unfolding in the house. Perhaps someone picks up a hitchhiker or receives an envelope on the front step, makes a telephone call or receives one.
“There’s a little shift that happens, and it happens all the time, in all kinds of circumstances. Like your eyes suddenly are working in a different way, and you size everything up differently.” (“No Harm, No Foul”)
The setting might be an office desk, a stretch of road, a restaurant, a string of houses on a harbour, a prairie amusement park, an ambulance, the cab of a truck, or a kitchen.
With one exception, these stories are set in Newfoundland, but the emotional terrain is universal, as the characters learn to size everything up differently.
“You’ve got to keep a piece of yourself there, you know. A shiny, safe little bit. Like a place you can go away into in your head.” (“Little World”)
The stories are told simply, but the reader has the sense that the author has a bulging file folder of notes for background on each character.
“And all at once John thought he had to start gathering every piece he could, as if there were a great importance hidden in every scrap of it. He was keenly aware how hard it was to catch all the small things; there was just so much going on.” (“Sharp Corner”)
The scraps, the small things: Russell Wangersky catches them too.
Sometimes they play out directly in the narrative, as time slows and characters notice strange details while caught up in chaos. Sometimes the focus is on the broad strokes of the action playing out, but always against a background of a fully drawn character.
People (readers) like to be let off the hook.
“To know that they’ve done their duty but can be released from it before anything nasty or messy happens, anything that it might be hard to forget later.” (“The Gasper”)
But readers of Whirl Away are not released in time to avoid the things that might be hard to forget.
“It was, he thought, a lot like fishing: you could feel the listeners coming closer and closer to the hook, nipping, swirling, and all the time he’d be waiting for his opportunity to strike it home and watch them flinch, watch their eyes dart away because they couldn’t take it after all.”
Russell Wangersky might not be waiting, like the narrator of “Sharp Corner”, for listeners (readers) to flinch, but these stories are often flinch-worthy.
Brutal and graceful: Whirl Away is a remarkable collection of stories.
Short story collections make the shortlists regularly, but so far the only ones to seal the deal have been Alice Munro’s (Runaway and For the Love of a Good Woman) and Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Recent shortlists have made room for Sarah Selecky, Clark Blaise and Alexander MacLeod, and Russell Wangersky’s stories are fine work in this vein, but it seems unlikely they will capture the prize.
Readers are sometimes introduced at the moment of crisis (as with “Bolt”), first on the scene, horrified. Sometimes they arrive immediately afterwards (as with “Echo” and “911”), and then slip back in time to understand the situation. Most often, however, readers are led into the messy aftermath, introduced to characters who are in the aftermath of a crisis, and the details of the events that led up to it are gradually relayed. Always tautly crafted.
Usually straightforward. Credible dialogue. Sometimes layered phrases to build a mood.
“Once, he would have listened for that shower, for those sentinel calling pipes, like a bloodhound scenting lost children, his face high towards the ceiling, his head turning back and forth to triangulate the sound, just so he could rush up the stairs to join her, pulling his sweatshirt over his head as he took the stairs two at a time.” (“I Like”)
Newfoundland. “Outside, the raspberry bushes were August high against the converted shed, and the wind coming off the bay made the canes switch back and forth gently across the exterior clapboard with a rhythmic, constant scrape. Some people might find it irritating, Anne thought as they stood there. John didn’t even seem to notice it, and to her, it was as regular and reassuring as waking up in the black of night and hearing John’s breathing beside her: regular, deep in his chest, her lover asleep flat on his back and completely unaware that she was even there.” (“Bolt”)
There is a nexus in every story.
Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Though their power lies in characterization, these stories have a clear plot.
Readers really do want to know what is happening, what has happened, what will happen next.
You know bad things happen to good people. You like roller coasters (the cover is eye-catching), the sharp turns as much as the downward rushes. Sometimes you bake things just for their smells. You tease out the how’s and why’s of difficult situations (especially when they’re not yours). You see stories everywhere.
This post is appearing as part of my series of IFOA Wednesdays and Russell Wangersky is appearing at this year’s festival.
Whirl Away also appears on the 2012 Giller Prize longlist: have you read it, or are you thinking of reading it?