canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999



by Peter Darbyshire
Raincoast, 2002

A Day Does Not Go By
by Sean Johnston
Nightwood, 2002

Bonneville Stories
by Mark Doyon
Pocol Press, 2001

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Read an interview with Peter Darbyshire

Read an interview with Sean Johnston

Three books of short stories by young men, largely about young men. Yes, there's swearing. Yes, there's sex. Yes, there's whining about the state of the world. Women figure in these narratives, too. Ex-wives, girlfriends, mothers, muses. But in these stories phallogocentrism rules. To take the pulse of the 21st century man, read on.

Raincoast, Peter Darbyshire's publisher, is using a quotation from a TDR review to help promote Please.

Springsteen sang, "There's a darkness on the edge of town." Darbyshire's characters live in that darkness, infected by the absurdities of the contemporary sit-com.

I wrote that, and even though the story I wrote that about isn't included in Please, it rings true of the collection as a whole. 

Please is tagged as "a novel" on its cover, but it's not a novel. [Though here's Peter Darbyshire's compelling case that it is...] Please is a series of linked short stories about a recently divorced young man in Toronto. The stories go back and forth through time to fill the readers in on the details of the ex-wife, the marriage, the marriage breakdown, the aftermath, and the moving on. Except there isn't much moving on. I thought that was a bit of a problem: the narrator remains more-or-less static. [The author, however, disagrees with that assessment...] I wouldn't overstress that complaint, mostly because Darbyshire writes short stories by Eddie Van Halen plays guitar: full out. His sentences are packed with power chords and lightning riffs. Please contains some of the best sentence by sentence writing I've read in a good long while.

The stories are powerful, compelling, and funny, though each tends to turn on the narrator-as-victim. Next to the narrator, the ex-wife is the most compassionate character in this collection. Everyone else the narrator meets screws him over, fucks him up, acts either irresponsibly or absurdly. The prevalence of insanity made me suspect we are dealing with an unreliable narrator here, and a narcissistic one to boot. For example, the narrator has a number of encounters with law enforcement and health care authorities, the officers of "the system" fail to live up to their calling. In one story, the narrator takes an unconscious woman to the emergency room of a hospital, only to be told to take her home because the doctors - without fully examining the woman - believe she has had too much to drink. The doctor tells him:

Well, she'll probably be all right.... She just needs to sleep it off. Now let's have a look at that lip and we can get you two on your way.

I found this wildly improbable, given the litigation fears of health professionals. However, time and again, Please emphasizes how unreliable the so-called helpers are. In another story, the narrator dials 9-1-1 to help an unconscious homeless man passed out on the sidewalk. An ambulance comes and the attendants leave the man on the sidewalk after finding he's mildly awake.

Let me emphasize, however, that these complaints are quibbles. Please creates a fictional world, and all elements within it are consistent. Darbyshire's sense of satire is sharp (think Martin Amis' Dead Babies, only the misanthropy isn't so severe); the book is what it is: an indictment of urban cruelty in its wide and pervasive forms. Earlier, I argued that Will Ferguson's satire in Happiness held a weak torch to Mordecai Richler's GG winner, Cocksure. Darbyshire, however, has shown he's more willing than Ferguson to go where the satirists go: deep into the mud. 

In A Day Does Not Go By, Sean Johnston presents a variety of compelling micro worlds. In a recent interview with TDR, Johnston talks about his relationship with like-minded writers, particularly minimalists like Raymond Carver:

I love the idea of minimalism in that, as a reader, Iíve got no desire to read another description of an idyllic scene or a horrible disaster. I have my own ideas of those things, as any reader does, and the written word cannot measure up. So my idea is to just do enough to trigger a response in the reader, and let [the reader's] unconscious do the work.

Like Darbyshire, Johnston blends realism in his stories with the absurd. One story, for example, features a door-to-door spider salesman: possibly literature's first! Johnston is particularly fine at presenting relatively stock situations - relationship breakdown, for example - from angles slightly askew, riveting the familiar with something new and original. Actually, the same could be said of Darbyshire, though the new in Please tends to come from Darbyshire's ability to create heightened drama, and the new in A Day Does Not Go By is more understated.

Mark Doyon's Bonneville Stories is an updated version of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Published by Pocol Press in Virginia, USA, Bonneville Stories tells the tales of a small American town and its rustic characters. Compared to Please and A Day Does Not Go By, Doyon's stories seem to come out of another century, and it isn't the one we so recently departed. They're cutesy. They're folkloric. They're probably an antidote to the dark tone that is more dominant in the other two books under consideration here. If that's what you think you need.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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