Prairie Fire Review -The Hour of Bad Decisions
Reviewed by: Sarah Klassen
"Life is not as easy as crossing a field," states an old Russian proverb, and the stories in Russell Wangersky's first collection substantiate the saying.
The book begins with "Burning Foley's," where two brothers' criminal engagement in fire and fraud results in tragedy; it ends with "Housekeeping," in which an elderly, lonely man plans his own demise. In between are fifteen stories depicting characters, mostly men, driven by accident, circumstances, or their lack of insight or courage, to the edge of endurance, sometimes to the point of madness. This is not a cheerful book.
Well into the collection, the reader arrives at two stories that exemplify the author's themes and strategies. In "Bowling Night," Ray Hennessey vents his frustrations over his apparently crumbling world in the bowling alley. His job is hauling away in his dump truck the debris of buildings left by the wrecking ball. The apple warehouse is torn down because apples are no longer shipped by rail, but more efficiently by truck. The club on Evangeline Beach where he met Jenine "sagged, broken-backed" and "[t]he high brown tides of Minas Basin were chewing away at the promontory where [it] sat" (77) Just as the community has undergone change, so has his relationship with Jenine. In "Mapping," John Hennessey, a firefighter, abandoned by his wife, continually enlarges the map on which he charts, obsessively, the incidents of catastrophes from his daily work, recalling each in lurid detail: "bone winking white through her scalp . . . split just at the hairline" (102) "cars doing crumpled, broken-backed gymnastics into ditches" (104) In both stories, a deteriorating relationship runs paralled to the external action of the story, the author skilfully intertwining the strands. The characters, like most in this collection, seem incapable of adapting to change, coping with accident, managing relationships, and most importantly understanding their own limitations and inadequacies. They can neither help themselves nor seek for help. Unlike one of the accident victims in "Mapping," they can't even ask, "Am I cut bad?" (101)
In "The Latitude of Walls," Kevin Hennessey--yes, another Hennessey, also separated from his wife--asks why the woman on the other side of the wall always screams. "Is she in trouble?" "No." "Why, then?" "Because he left," an "explanation set as punctuation--just the naked why." (92) As if abandonment is the normal state of life. Most relationships in Wangersky's stories involve marital partners, and all are fraught with the deep need for love and the constant failure to hang on to it. The author does not permit his characters, or his readers, the reprieve of easy resolution; he tends to leave them burdened with failure and agony.
But he offers great description, as, for example the following from "No Apologies for Weather," where the uncontrollable fury building in the head of Leo's wife is accompanied by an escalating Atlantic storm:
Atlantic storms roll in fast, the first warning a thin petticoat of high, light clouds that spreads across the sky, unstoppable. One moment there is that thin sunlight--that white, bright hard sunlight through a scrim of high cloud--and the next, the long green robes of the spruce trees have gone dark with frightened anticipation. Storms jump at you quickly, ripping the tops off the waves and throwing them in your face as salty spume. (190)
The stories are set in Atlantic Canada, mainly in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, a landscape and weather Wangersky knows and delights in, and delights his readers with.
Names are repeated in the stories; there appears to be a large clan of Hennesseys living around Gaspereaux, brothers, maybe, who appear in several stories, often with different partners and in different, though not improved, circumstances. Their stories are not obviously related; however, we may conclude that all carry the same genes, all are cut from the same faulty (universal?) cloth. Incessant calamity may threaten to weigh the reader down. The stout of heart, however, will appreciate the depth of the author's insight into human nature, and his skill in writing this insight into characters, action and environment. A fine first book.