canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

What Men Know About Women
by Ron Smith
Oolichan Books 1999

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

In Ron Smith's short story collection What Men Know About Women is story entitled "Desire." This short piece, the third story in the book, is about two men standing on a street corner in Vancouver looking up at the sky. They aren't looking at anything in particular; they're just pretending to look at something, looking upwards as a sort of sociological experiment to see just how many other people than can get looking upwards with them. At nothing. Herd instinct. And they do gather a crowd, one man feeling guilty for duping these people, the other reveling in the deception. An interesting idea, an interesting experiment, but perhaps a dangerous device for Smith to be utilizing…

Smith is writing in the tradition of the (male) American realists: Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Frederick Barthelme, Richard Ford. The main character in the title story is even reading Ford's Wildlife. These authors typically write about relations between the sexes and typically employ the writing style of less is more; Hemingway's 'iceberg' principal: only a small percentage of the story needs to be told, the larger amount is inferred. With Smith, however, less is less.

Smith may pretend, but there isn't really anything up there in the sky at all. And his portrayal of the dynamics between men and women is certainly not new or especially insightful; women are nags and men are never around when you need them. The opening story, 'The Silver Fox', a short parable about a clever fox and a foolish wolf, seemingly posits that women can get away with anything because they are beautiful and men are doomed to failure because they're ugly. In Smith's world women are smart, quick, and sarcastic; men are stupid, slow, and brutal.

Hemingway may have portrayed men and women similarly, but he was writing half a century ago, and his misogyny (if you want to term it thusly) was tempered by his skill with language. Nor were male-female relationships the exclusive focus of his work; there was always more going on. There was always something to be looked at up there in the sky.

(Note: In the title story there is a reference to the rock band Aerosmith. However, the band's name is spelled incorrectly; 'Arrowsmith' [p188]. This is a triviality, yes, but it is the second book I've reviewed in less than six months wherein an author has alluded to a popular music group [in an attempt to show how hip they are?] and misspelled the band's name. I'm not a fan of Aerosmith, but I am a fan of accuracy; these mistakes make me lose whatever little faith I had in these writers to begin with.)








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