canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off
by John Lavery
ECW Press, 2004

The Long Slide
by James Grainger
ECW Press, 2004

Mommy, Daddy, Baby
by Greg Kearney
McGilligan Books, 2004

Doctor Weep and Other Strange Teeth
by Gary Barwin
Mercury, 2004

Traditionalist excellence is no doubt preferable to innovative mediocrity (but there's not much to be said for conservative mediocrity; and there's a great deal to be said for inspired innovation). - John Barth

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

All four titles under review here are short story collections.


Gary Barwin's Doctor Weep and Other Strange Teeth contains 34 stories in 84 pages. It also includes a couple-six alternate universes, such as the one in the first story in the collection "Defrosting Disney," which is narrated by one Dr. Mountain, "famed heart surgeon to the cartoon world." Dr. Mountain defrosts Walt Disney to cut out his heart and transplant it into Mickey Mouse. 

This is exactly the type of thing one would expect from Stuart Ross's collaboration partner (Ross and Barwin collaborated on the novel The Mud Game, published by Mercury Press, 1995). The rest of the collection continues in this vein, confronting the reader with contorted realities time and again. The stories are short; they often seem slight, jokey; but the intensity of their strangeness cannot be underestimated. 

This is a hard book to recommend, because it seems to demand a certain kind of reader. If you are that kind of reader -- one who is tired of the usual, one who desires to be provoked by a new kind of reading experience -- seek out this book. It's unlike any other; a new addition to the canon of the Canlit surreal.


James Grainger's The Long Slide is the most traditional of the four collections reviewed here, despite Ray Robertson's claim on the back cover that this title "is as far away from the weary world of McCanlit as one could hope for." Not so; though Gary Barwin's book (above) may be.

Grainger's title contains six stories in 140 pages. All six center on male protagonists in the late growing up years (20-40). Grainger's characters struggle with common antagonists: women, money, desire -- the Big Picture Issues -- the meaning of life, the universe and everything. The stories are set in contemporary Toronto. They are, for the most part, laden with sadness. 

Grainger is a sensitive writer who communicates world-weariness well. He is also good at capturing the absurdities that hobble relationships. This collection reminded me of Daniel Jones's The People One Knows (Mercury Press, 1994), a book I hadn't thought about in years. That book, like The Long Slide, represented well the depressed side of modern male reality -- the ambiguity, or often outright falsehood, of supposed male power -- in a voice devoid of transcendence. 

It's 200 years since Wordsworth wondered wither had it gone, the glory and the dream; and nearly a century since Hemingway ended The Sun Also Rises ...

"Oh, Jake," Brett said, "we could have had such a damned good time together."


"Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Grainger mines similar territory. 

The closing story, "Some Kind of Morphine," for example, is particularly stunning. It isn't a story about the crisis. It's a story about after the crisis -- about the carrying on. A wife is dead by her own hand; a husband and daughter are alive together in a world forever tainted by loss. What have they lost? It depends who you ask. This is one of the most heart-breaking stories I've ever read.

One note of dissonance. Too often the sentences in The Long Slide rely on cliché. One example will suffice, unfortunately from the opening paragraph: "She would have just finished school last week, the rest of the summer stretching out before her like a big cat sleeping in the sun." Oh, that cat stretched out in the sun. Please, please, don't make me read that again.


Greg Kearney's Mommy, Daddy, Baby is edited by Hal Niedzviecki and back-cover blurbed by Derek McCormack and Ken Sparling. Like the fiction of those fellows, Kearney's prose is sparse; his narratives focus on the quirky; his bizarre tales are often very, very funny. Also, this is a collection of short-shorts: It contains 29 stories in 141 pages. [Note: Kearney's fiction has appeared in TDR; see "The Man Who Ate Babies."]

A passage selected at random:

I eat what I can.

Thawed out store bought cherry tarts for dessert.

I'm so glad you came over, says Linda. I'm trying to branch out. Reach out in little ways, everyday. Like, even on the bus. I say hi to the bus driver. And then I say thank you when I get off.

The bus service is really good here, I say.

When I go to leave she grabs my arm, gently.

I want to show you something, she says. These things I make.

She goes to the bathroom. Comes out with some sort of necklace. She hands it to me.

I make them myself. A lot of people like them.

It's a string of plastic shells. Ugly as hell.

Thank you! I say. It's gorgeous. It's like a little piece of the Caribbean.

It's twenty-five dollars.

It cost that much to make? I say.

No. You can have it for twenty-five dollars. I'm going to bring 'em to work and sell 'em for forty.

That passage is from a story called "Shattered Vagina." And it just about says all that's to be said about Mommy, Daddy, Baby. The stories here are not as outright surreal as the ones in Gary Barwin's Doctor Weep (as the title suggests, Kearney's tales more often revolve around family drama than alternate realities involving deceased cartoonists and big-eared mice); but it's also true that they are more "inspired innovation" -- to borrow John Barth's phrase -- than the stories in The Long Slide

Kearney's stories are deep on the wild side (some of the language won't please your Aunt Matilda). However, this collection is definitely one of the bravest, and funniest, in recent years. 


John Lavery is the author of a previous short story collection, Very Good Butter (ECW, 2000). Now he's back with You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off. Put frankly, this is one of the best books of 2004, IMHO. It also has one of the strangest titles. A collection of linked short stories (eight in 209 pages), You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off integrates traditionalist excellence with inspired innovation and creates something unique in the process. 

In TDR's review of Very Good Butter, I noted that "the instability of meaning ... [is] one of Lavery's strongest themes." That theme continues in this new collection, whose protagonist may be the Kwaznievski of the title, or it may be the one who speaks the title phase, a police officer in Montreal, Detective Inspector PF. Late in the book, PF says: "People fuck up, they always will, and I take my cut." As an officer of the law, PF is charged with helping to maintain order, but order doesn't want to be maintained -- as Thomas Pynchon reminded us decades ago, entropy rules (see the story "Entropy" in Slow Learner). Life is crumbling towards heat-death, but there are forces pushing against it: fear, paranoia, the law, the media, your Aunt Matilda. Detective Inspector PF pushes against death, too; at least on his good days, of which there seem to be fewer and fewer.

("People fuck up, they always will, and I take my cut" could be the mantra of fiction writers, too, who would have nothing to say were it not for the slings and arrows of outrageous human drama.

This is a book with many italicized passages. They add to the narrative's polyphonic presentation.)

What makes You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off so remarkable, to me, are the layers of story Lavery integrates into an operatic whole. Some stories move the reader along by following a single protagonist through a series of changes, or crises, or along a thought-process. The stories in The Long Slide do that, for example. Some stories excite readers by taking them to strange places (see Doctor Weep). Some stories force readers to see familiar scenarios from points to view that are more than a little askew (see Mommy, Daddy, Baby). You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off does all of those things and more; it is literature that it is truly symphonic.

(I keep reaching for music metaphors -- "operatic," "symphonic" -- because I'm not sure how else to describe this book. Like a Van Gogh painting filtered through Jackson Pollack? Like Eminem jamming with Pink Floyd?

What's the plot, you say? Detective Inspector PF is a Montreal cop. He is 20-odd years into his career. His wife has died. He is something of a celebrity because he appears on a local television show. He is obsessed with a woman -- Kwaznievski -- who appears to be homeless and who claims to have found a large bundle of cash by the side of the road. The different stories take numerous detours along with way, showing similar characters from dis-similar angles.

Any weaknesses in this book? Some readers will find an emphasis on the thought-processes of characters detracts from the forward thumping motion of the plot. Some readers might say: "Too much philosophizing." For those readers, there are many other books out there to please them. Personally, I wouldn't ask Lavery to change a word.)

On the back cover, Lee Henderson says: "Lavery's stories are today's great laughless comedies." And Mark Anthony Jarman calls Lavery "a dolphin of a writer, jumping through the waves with glee." What I want to add is that Lavery's stories are serious and ambitious in a way that most books in Canada are not. Publishers complain that short story collections don't sell -- as if sales were the sole criterion for publishing decisions. You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off will not be the next Da Vinci Code, but no matter -- it is the kind of book that ought to be winning all of the high-falutin literary prizes -- both in Canada, and abroad.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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