canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Rhymes with Useless
by Terence Young
Raincoast Books, 2000

Reviewed by Harold Hoefle

“People take the sun for granted. They think it’s always going to be there, but it’s just a regular star like all the others. It’s got limited fuel and one day it’s going to explode.” 

So speaks the eleven-year-old narrator in Terence Young’s story “Kraut,” and the boy’s words resound beyond his world to the twelve other stories in this début collection. For the boy’s consideration of the sun becomes a symbolic warning about another supposed fixture in Young’s universe and ours: the family. Young’s use of sensory detail also evokes the emotional maelstrom that is family. 

In “Yellow with Black Horns,” six-year-old Evelina slowly intuits the collapse of her parents’ marriage. As she puts the shards of her smashed cup ­ proof of an unseen parental argument ­ into the kitchen’s garbage can, outside of her suburban home a “lawnmower ignites the air somewhere down the street. Two cats screech at one another. Upstairs, Peter leaps from his bed onto the floor and yells for Evelina’s mother to bring him his favourite shirt.” Young’s verbs describe the girl’s outer world, while echoing the violence of the inner.

Of course, the fact that daily living threatens personal and familial calm is not profound. Young’s work, however, calculates the price which the pursuit of calm exacts as his characters adjust to the frailty of the present, a frailty born of ennui, relationship misunderstandings, meaninglessness, even self-loathing. Not surprisingly, these forms of psychological splintering and emotional pain often surface in the place where family meets: the home. Hence the ambivalence Young’s characters feel toward their putative refuge. 

This thematic concern first surfaces in Young’ s poetry; his collection The Island in Winter was a 1999 Governor General’s Award nominee, and has been reviewed in TDR. In the poem “My Mother Who Was Forever,” Young limns the plight of suburban-Victoria women: “hungry for some conversation,/ not afraid to go home,/ but of what they’ll do/ when they get there.” Similarly, in his story “The New World,” the widowed Rachel moons around her empty house, flipping switches and “trading one dull light for another” as she reaches a tired conclusion: “Home is what she was forced to call it when she was leaving someone.”

Yet the Victoria-based Young is much more than a chronicler of familial and existential bleakness. His stories work to elicit empathy in his readers, as his characters go about their jobs and try to understand their beloveds; as they try to act dutifully ­ to others, to themselves ­ in their attempt to ward off what one of his poem’s speakers calls “whatever hunts us down.”

Empathy for the hunted ­ but who are they? In Young’s fiction, they are the marginalized among us, the individuals disconnected from the members of the burgeoning, suburban Canadian middle-class, the values of which another West Coast writer ­ the American poet Robinson Jeffers ­ has also decried: “In pleasant peace and security/ How suddenly the soul in a man begins to die.” Young’s stories brim with characters who cannot or will not embrace the middle-class wish for that gossamer ideal: “pleasant peace.” 

In Young’s story “Fast,” Jerry is the husband-father protagonist; upon realizing how many evenings he and his wife have spent visiting couples-with-kids and eating dinner with money managers, he “felt he was slipping away.” His evening-marginalization is compounded by his daytime job, for Jerry repairs photocopy-machines at the local university. There, people “talked about him in the third-person…Girls treated him like a construction worker, only one up on the food chain from a rapist. Some walked around him as though he were diseased, others as though he didn’t exist. None of them spoke to him.” For the entrenched middle-class faculty and the middle-class-bound students, the repairman is less important than the machine he fixes.

A different form of estrangement besets seventeen-year-old Anna in “Dead.” Hungry for life’s offerings, she consents to have sex with her new boyfriend, and discovers that carnal intimacy means he’s “bouncing around for a while…and when his eyes glaze over like he’s about to pass out, they’ re finished…and she usually has to stop herself from yawning.” Young deftly describes what happens to his outsider-characters, thus offering the reader insights into the ways of people who have helped to make such characters outsiders. In Young’s work, outsiders see the rest of us best.

His characters ultimately win our empathy, and we give it partly because we recognize these people as real; they speak like their real-life counterparts. Young ­ a father of two, veteran high-school teacher, co-founder and co-editor of The Claremont Review, a journal dedicated to publishing teenage-writers ­ has got the teen argot down-pat, along with that of sniping couples and what used to be called “the working-class.” His teen-characters mouth the monosyllabic replies, vague sentence-endings, and pause-words you hear today in the malls and schools and video-arcades: “sweet,” “harsh,” “cool,” “got busted,” “or something,” and the ubiquitous “like.” 

Meanwhile, in the collection’s title-story, Billie tells her husband Eustace that she’s jealous of anyone in love. When he assures her that he wasn’t in love with the still-unknown Joni Mitchell he met up north before his marriage, Billie retorts: “Not with her, sweetheart. You were in love with yourself.” And in “The Day the Lake Went Down,” Willie is the archetypal booze-guzzling working-class wit. He describes sex with a menstruating partner as “Sort of like humping a leaky water-bed…Slappety, slap, slop.”

Credible dialogue hooks us into the stories, and so do credible forms of duty; Young reveals his knowledge of how most people try to give meaning to their daily lives ­ by working. Sprinkled throughout the stories are informed references to dry-walling, teaching, fishing, outboard-motor repair, cleaning-contractors, crematorium work, liquor-store clerking, mutual-fund sales, and farming. These kinds of job-related details enhance what John Gardner calls “the fictional dream”; when we read details which we know or accept as accurate, we willingly ascend into the world of the story.

Young’s characters fulfill their financial duty, working to pay their rent or mortgage, to buy their food and clothe their children; some of his characters also struggle to fulfill their human duty. In Young’s fictional world, that duty is, and again, empathy: the only salve for the pain of the marginalized and estranged. It’s a Christian vision, and one which Young often frames in very English, which is to say understated, ways. As Thomas, the retired literature-and-writing teacher in the collection’s last story, “Maintenance,” notes: “We come into this world to look after things and then we leave.” And in the last lines of Young’s poetry collection, we read: “We/sip at our lives. Bitter, we say./Sweet.” Throughout his verse and short fiction, Young seems to be saying that we must sip because the drink is all that’s being served, and we must remember to remember to replenish the cups of others sitting across from us. We all sip the same wine.


Rhymes with Useless is a fine short-story collection written in an unpretentious prose-style, not Raymond-Carver minimalism nor Marquezian baroque, but nevertheless precise and evocative. Young’s sharp dialogue enhances the foreground drama while his narration paints a background full of nuance and symbol. And his structural choices also work; he often uses vignette-driven, parallel plot-lines, sometimes skipping between past and present. He also employs first- and third-person narrators, and his protagonists are impressively varied: children, teenagers, middle-aged and elderly adults; male and female; fathers and mothers; married, divorced, and widowed. In Young’s stories, much of humanity breathes; because of his art, we want these characters to breathe easier. To survive.

Harold Hoefle teaches literature in Montreal; he has published fiction and journalism, and he regularly reviews novels and story-collections for TDR.







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