canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Spray Job: Stories
by Harold Hoefle
Black Bile Press, 2003

Reviewed by Lori Lavalee

Originally published in 2003, Spray Job is now in its third, limited edition, printing. Consisting of four short stories, including the title story, Hoefle writes from the varying perspectives of a son jockeying for independence from his mother; an itinerant-scholar-of-sorts, living with similarly unemployed men in a Vancouver rooming-house; and a revolutionary worker-soldier assigned to a coffee-picking brigade, along with an international volunteer.

The stories, Cutting, Czechs and Flaco Was Here clearly demonstrate that Hoefle is a master of characterization. While these selections are beautifully cultivated the final story, Spray Job, is most improbable and uninspiring.

In this story the protagonist, Laszlo, is a grade-school teacher who, for reasons unknown, is desperate to be recruited by the New Fenian Army. On his initial visit to an Irish pub he is approached by two men he believes to be operatives. Espousing the rhetoric he has learned from books, the conversation progresses in a predicable and mundane manner.

They agree to meet the next day, at a doughnut shop, and eleven hours later Laszlo is carrying out his first assignment. At one point the narrator hints that this story might be the coming-of-age tale of a late bloomer: "Touching the door handle, fingering the key, he paused. He was leaving his mother’s world." Based on subsequent events, however, the story instead reads more like a cautionary tale for young readers.

Rather than deliberately presenting the protagonist as a blundering fool, Czechs and Flaco, merely suggest that their characters are "idiots," depending on one’s ideological perspective. In Czechs, Anton has escaped communism only to exist in a child-like state in a world, where for him, "everything is upside down." He struggles to understand his Canadian friend:

"Harold, sometimes I am thinking about you like brother. You are good guy. But there is problem. You are kind of Western Guy Lenin called ’useful idiot.’"

Although born in a free country, Harold has chosen not to conform to the expectations of a capitalist society and makes no apologies for these circumstances.

In Flaco Was Here, Ernesto’s distaste for Walter, a gaunt, skinny kid as his nickname, Flaco, implies, is evident. After learning the "blue-eyed idiot" is in Nicaragua "‘[t]o show support,’" he tells us: "I spit at his feet, which is the nicest message my brain is flashing to my mouth. I want to strangle him."

Living in close proximity to one another, it is both necessary and impossible to patrol the boundaries of personal space. Affable and perhaps somewhat naïve, Walter decides to visit with Ernesto during a break:

Flaco sits beside me and smiles. Blood of Christ, I can feel myself smiling back. What’s wrong with my face? Does it have its own brain? Because I didn’t sleep, I’m so groggy I can’t even think.

As in the previous two stories, Hoefle provides readers with critical cues about his characters and the subjects they observe, in the smallest of actions and the briefest of thoughts. We learn, for example, that Walter later earns Ernesto’s begrudging respect: "When I come to get him at 5:30 he’s already standing on the veranda, in the dark, a rifle slung over his back. He’s tall, I’ll give him that."

In his assessment of Flaco and his communications with him, Ernesto’s character is palpably male. This quality is readily evident in his body humour:

. . . every midnight he [Flaco] jumps out of his sleeping-bag and runs from the compound into the grass. The soldiers imitate him, the quack that starts the river out of his ass, then the way his butt coughs – like a tree-frog or a sick machine-gun.

In Czechs, Harold has a somewhat more congenial relationship with his comrades. Nonetheless their interactions with one another are also characteristically male: He never asks for more than his friends are willing to tell him. Rather than probing for further explanation, he habitually says, "I see." What they do discuss in detail is women and the changing dynamics between the sexes that, somehow, is part of the immigrant experience. Like Flaco, this story is distinguished by a brotherly kinship:

That night we stayed in the rectory with the grey-haired priest and drank his beer as we swapped hitch-hiking stories. The priest had the most and the best.

And as short as Cutting is, almost befitting the genre of a postcard story, it too succeeds in conveying the intensity of human emotion in a realistic and complex manner: The reader feels every nuance of the strained, but loving relationship, between mother and son and is sympathetic to both.

In stark contrast to these three selections the title story, Spray Job, is invariably lacking in sophistication and overall appeal. Judging by this publication, first-person narratives appear to be Hoefle’s forte.

Writer, reviewer and editor, Lori Lavalee is actively involved in the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, the Editors’ Association of Canada (Prairie Provinces Branch) and the Mudlark Writers Collective, Lethbridge AB.







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