canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by David Rose
Black Bile Press, 2001

Reviewed by Stephen Brockwell

In Stripe, a limited edition fiction chap book from Mathew Firth's edgy and urbane Black Bile Press, David Rose has collected five distinctive stories of isolation, suffering and the hope of resolution or intimacy. The characters in these stories tentatively but stolidly suffer death or disruptive change; some give up, others persevere. The tone is that of the English working class and this is consistently supported by diction: "lorry", "bollockser", "lad", "bloody", "mitching".

The stories for the most part describe individuals who are thoughtful, somewhat isolated or alienated and encountering periods of crisis. David Rose has, to my mind, a deep compassion with the working class man, an ability to convincingly shape characters that are quixotic and barely balanced; yet, each manages to maintain a degree of compassion under extreme stress or in extreme states of alienation.

In the story "Owl", the speaker has been experiencing profound existential angst due to his belief in the extreme sensitivity of the world to chaotic phenomenon. He has begun to visit a familiar exhibit at the British Museum - a mummified man in a simple grave.

On my fourth or fifth visit discovered George, as I later named him. His sand-dried body lay in a reconstructed grave, doubled up like a child on a cot, one arm curved under his head.

These visits become compulsive. It appears as though there is a balancing in this story, reflected in the book as a whole, between the chaotic phenomena of the natural order, the strain of everyday existence, and the ability of art to somehow pull the fragments together. After contemplating the impossibility of absolute zero, the character listens to Rachmaninov and watches his wife with tenderness before they go to bed. When the narrator wakes in the early hours

Gina was curled up like a child, one arm under her head. I put my face to her shoulder, took her hand and put it into my armpit so I could feel her pulse.

That wonderful moment is an example of the best kind of writing in this collection: raw, honest, hopeful, human. There are moments in Stripe where David Rose pursues a thin argumentative thread that does not completely convince. This is particularly evident when he is describing the technical aspects of Chaos theory. To my mind, it would have been sufficient to simply state the facts and move on: the character's movements and observations are more convincing than his thoughts.

Another successful story, "A Nice Bucket", makes the best use of David Rose's terse, indicative sentences and his urban voice. The dialogue in this story is balanced; the characters are carefully carved. It is really quite wonderful how much narrative energy David Rose can extract from the drudgery of laying asphalt paving.

Sharkey boils a kettle on the burner used to melt the tar. They all pool their sandwiches so they have some variety. His chicken are all taken, he's left with an egg-and-salt, and one which appears to be empty, but he keeps his coconut cake back for himself, for after his mug of tea.

They have returned to complete the first patch in the road:

- Buggering hell, these buckets are bloody knackered. They're flaking off into the amalgam. See what I mean, like? It'll give us a sod of a surface. May as well use it straight off the board. Hey, Ron, lift the board down, will you, over here?

- Fuck off, it's far too heavy. You're not icing a fuckn cake, you know. It's just a hump on the road, to be driven over, right?

This dialogue is convincing (with the possible exception of the final "right"). Anyone who has worked or walked along a busy London street would recognize this banter. At the end of the story, there is a wonderful image of the workers' faces in one of the doors on the street they are paving:

And in the front door opposite, in the black gloss, he sees their reflections, his, Ron's, Micker's, Sharkey's. They are there too on the brass letterbox and the spherical knocker, distorted, looming and shrinking as they move.

I found this to be a very promising small book. But I would like to see David Rose indulge himself a little; at times, the writing style is too terse, the rhythms too staccato. It appears as though he hesitates to let the writer enter into the book as an active player. But because these stories are constructed by the artificial (meaning purposefully constructed) actions and thoughts of characters, the writer is very obviously present. I would be happy to see David Rose inject himself more forcefully into his work - with more of the hearty language of his dialogue. His next work, hopefully of novel length, promises to be enormously challenging, rich in detail and human texture.

Stephen Brockwell is the author of Cometology (ECW, 2001). His poem Parthenon Stallion's Head appeared in The Danforth Review.







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