canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Angel Wing Splash Pattern
by Richard Van Camp
Kegedonce Press, 2002

Reviewed by Matthew Firth

See Richard Van Camp's top 10 books by First Nations authors (so far)

The furthest north I have ever been is Edmonton, or maybe Moosonee - I'll have to check their latitudes to be certain. One thing for sure: Moosonee feels way more true north than Edmonton, local folks using boats and window-less trucks to travel over cold waters/dusty streets in the summertime, versus Edmonton's shopping mall blight and generic urban malaise. Regardless, I've always been fascinated with Canada's far north, if only from long distance. But like Iceland and the South Pacific; the Yukon, NWT and Nunavut (or parts thereof) will be seen by yours truly before I die.

The point here being: reading Richard Van Camp's short story collection Angel Wing Splash Pattern has given me a solid foothold in the north, more so than any Discovery Channel documentary. Van Camp shows the north, blemishes, bruises and all. He serves up some of the stuff you might expect: bored bad-asses wearing Kenora dinner jackets, monster pickup trucks, mind-numbing cold, boozing and brawling, but also some stuff you might not expect: KFC, a little Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and bucketsful of humour, anguish, angst, and anger.

The first story - Mermaids - is a powerful account of the strong bond between brothers, especially between those who grew up together in an abusive household. One brother, the narrator - Torchy - is on the run from bad memories. He diverts his attention with Bingo jackpots, and then, with whores. After blowing his winnings, Torchy finds himself battered, beaten and face to face with a nine-year old girl in gumboots who is nearly frozen on the cold, cold streets of Yellowknife. To her Torchy tells the myth of mermaids and mermen, a beautifully told tale through which he relays his brother Sfen's tragic demise. My heart was ripped from my chest thinking afterward on the cruel fate dealt to Sfen. The story jump-starts the collection, throwing the book straight into high gear. It also foretells what is to come from Van Camp: bold, bare-knuckled, sincere, honest fiction.

The second story - Let's Beat the Shit Out of Herman Rosko! - provides excellent characterization mixed with biting humour. I laughed my ass off at the part about yellow Halls cough drops. I won't try to summarize that here. I'll leave it to Van Camp instead. Suffice it to say, that belly laugh is worth the price of the book itself and food for thought when my throat turns raw next winter ...

The Night Charles Bukowski Died is pure poetic rage and revenge. The story has great pace and shows Van Camp's empathy with the underdog.

There is a serene beauty to Sky Burial where Icabus, an old man, faces his death head-on and is constantly reminded of his impending demise:

Harold rolled his eyes and bit into the taco. Tomato sauce gushed out the bottom. Icabus closed his eyes. The sauce was blood. Augustine's blood every time she tried to have a baby. The blood of his son who had killed himself. The blood in his piss and spit.

By the story's end, Icabus is ready:

Icabus flew with an explosion of white feathers and was swallowed by the hottest lake. He could hear the most beautiful songs being sung by thousands of voices, and there was peace. He became it. Everything was so blue, and he noticed that the colours red and black were nowhere to be seen. He could see Delphine waiting for him. She was radiant, standing in her tanned moosehide dress, and beside her stood Justin, who stood so proud. Morris wasn't here, and that was a good sign. Icabus looked to his left. Stan walked beside him, smiled, placed his hand on Icabus' shoulder, guided him home ...

This story - as well as the mythical/erotic story Why Ravens Smile to Little Old Ladies as They Walk By - shows Van Camp's flexibility as a writer. He knows when to pull the punches. These are nice counterweights to the tough tales in the book.

In Snow White Nothing for Miles Van Camp writes about exacting justice via an old man's mission to set right that which is wrong in his eyes: the introduction of sweat lodges by the Cree in Dogrib country. It is a strong story of tradition battling the contemporary obsession with commerce.

A definite gem is the final story - How I Saved Christmas. Along with Mermaids, this one paints the clearest picture of North West Territories life. It's a rollicking account of poetry, blowjobs, hard core, strange dentists, madness, Santa, and small-town community spirit. Van Camp really gets on a roll, e.g.,:

"I walked around the bar," he continued. "Yelling across the tables made me deaf, so I danced on the floor all by myself. I looked at the moose and caribou heads above the bar with their mouths open. I just walked up to them and said I was sorry. Somebody stuck red pool balls in the eye sockets of the buffalo skulls. I saw all the fish mounted on the walls, those big pikes and whitefish. I just walked up and said I was sorry. I poured beer in their mouths and got kicked out. On my birthday! It's Christmas for chrissakes." He paused. "I seen Sal Bright there. He don't wanna be Santa any more."

Angel Wing Splash Pattern is a superb collection and such a welcome relief from the usual, middle of the road, CanLit crapola. There is no middle class, Toronto-centric mewling going on here. And thank Christ for that! Van Camp's fiction is stripped down, yes, but also thoughtful, wise and compassionate. Moreover he gives readers a window through which to view a distant corner of this country too often overlooked by those with a southern bias. Angel Wing Splash Pattern shows the southern softies the true north. Strong? Yes, strong. Free? No more and no less than anyone/anywhere else in this country. And therein lies the beauty of this book. There is no contrived mythologizing here, just the straight goods delivered by a talented writer. This is a ballsy set of stories that works well in both screams and whispers. Grab it and run with it.

Matthew Firth is the author of two short story collections: Fresh Meat (Rush Hour Revisions, 1997) and, more recently, Can You Take Me There, Now? (Boheme Press, 2001). He is co-editor of Grunt and Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex (Boheme Press, October 2002). He is also editor/publisher of the fiction mag Front&Centre published by his very own Black Bile Press.







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