canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Happy Pilgrims
by Stephen Finucan
Insomniac Press, 2000

Reviewed by Harold Hoefle

In 1494, the German poet Sebastian Brant published Narrenschiff - Ship of Fools - a long satiric work that likely inspired Hieronymus Bosch's painting of shouting, boozing, clutching peasants and clerics on a land-bound ark. This scene adorns the cover of Stephen Finucan's debut short-story collection, Happy Pilgrims. Seeing that title framed by Bosch, I wondered how ironic Finucan was being here, and whether I should expect a tumult of lunatics to lunge from his pages.

Yes, this Ontario writer does have some crazed characters, but more importantly, his characters are pilgrims in the sense that they are searching for meaning. Amid the dross and drama of daily events, they are trying to fathom what matters; what, exactly, life is doing to them; in what way should they respond. Moments become rarefied by the intensity of the search. Here is Angel - a boy in "On Angel's Wings" - staring at the stained-glass window in his small-town church, "intrigued by the finely detailed wings of the cherubs gathered round the edges of the passions." The hungry curiosity, the religious tradition, and, significantly, the invocation of great emotion - Finucan carefully explores these regions. And when emotion becomes extreme, as in Angel's reaction to his invalid grandfather's shame - his unmarried daughter gets pregnant again - we see that, like Timothy Findley, Finucan can deftly trace the logic of madness.

The characters' pursuit of meaning is girded by Finucan's writing-style, which is usually controlled, concrete, and suggestive, setting up tensions that power a story to its finish. In "A Talk", a boy describes his first duck-hunting trip and how his father reacts after hearing that his wife failed to tell their son something important. "His finger played with the safety catch on his gun, flicking it back and forth. He shifted on the bench and I felt the boat rock slightly." In this father-son story we feel the presence of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, and also see Finucan's successful use of that writer's less-is-more credo.

Other Finucan strengths include his breadth of setting and character. In eleven stories, ranging in length from four to twenty-four pages, his settings change from small-town Ontario to Ireland, England, and France. Character-wise we meet, among others, a Tarot card reader, priests, a Lourdes businessman, an old Hollywood movie star, and a paranoid Irish layabout. Moreover, thirty-two-year-old Finucan writes convincingly of the elderly, of their pilgrimage lit by memory. In "The Honeymooners," octogenarian Harry Burns is going to see his hospitalized wife and has stopped for a beer in a small-town hotel. He is alone in the washroom, when "the smell of stale beer was replaced by that of fermenting urine. He stopped for a moment and sniffed deeply. The scent brought a warm glow of nostalgia and he thought of the old Queen's again." The Queen's Hotel is the place where Harry drank before it was turned it into a library; his wife is also the Queen he still deeply loves, and and wishes to surprise with a grand plan.

Though Finucan's stories are generally engaging throughout, there are some weaknesses. In "On Angel's Wings," the drama is diluted by the constant use of spacing between scenes, a technique that, when over-used, seems like a writer's dollar-store suspense-maker. Another occasional problem is language. While Finucan's sentences are often evocative, his diction is sometimes cliché: "in full swing" (in the first story's first sentence), "furrowed his brow", "ran out of steam", "her hands clenched in fists." He also pens the occasional awkward phrase, such as "he leapt like a perfect swan."

These quibbles aside, Finucan impresses one with another important writer-quality: he can both describe various activities and make the details serve the story. Window installation, travel-agency dynamics, the priesthood, duck-hunting, high school teaching, fishing, the film industry: he gives the details of these activities symbolic resonance and, in his best stories, this resonance creates a crescendo of narrative energy. That energy also derives from the less-is-more credo. Often, something in a Finucan story is only known allusively; it remains unspoken. That tension is most apparent in his shorter works, such as "A Talk" and "Windows." In the latter, a woman whose husband left her now discusses with a contractor the replacement of her home's windows. The story explores her gathering interest in the man, an interest moving towards the sexual. In the dialogue, double-entendre is rife: "What I'm thinking is a double-hung laid on the top." And later: "Is that it then?" "For measuring, sure." The contractor does not react to these innuendoes and the reader remains enticed by what could happen.

Throughout Finucan's stories, the action's follow-through seems to lead one way, then the reader slowly realizes that the writer has been carefully setting up a movement much less lateral (and literal), and so much more engaging to follow. One willingly follows the progress of his pilgrims, empathizes with their travails, and is surprised by their destinies. Which is another way of saying that Finucan's Happy Pilgrims is a collection that should be welcomed and read.


Harold Hoefle teaches literature in a Montreal high school, and his story "Spray Job" appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of The Nashwaak Review.







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