Hey, Crumbling Balcony!
by Stuart Ross
ECW, 2003

Tight Like That
by Jim Christy
Anvil Press, 2003

Kilter: 55 fictions
by John Gould
Turnstone Press, 2003

Curiosity to Satisfy and Fear to Placate
by J.J. Steinfeld
Mercutio Press, 2003

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Three works of fiction, one book of poetry. What's the connection? There isn't one. They're all written by men. They're all concerned with ... what the? what are we doing here?

First, Hey, Crumbling Balcony! ... a great title for a book, a terrific title for a book by Stuart Ross. (See also Ross's website: hunkamooga.com.) Here's a bit of the title poem (which is actually called "The True, Sad Tale of Benjamin Peret as it Relates to Me"):

Hey, balcony crumbling outside my window,
whose concrete organs plummet to the parking lot below,
know this: Benjamin Peret died in 1959
and in that year I was born.
He was photographed
in a toreador's get-up,
and thus was I born, hat and all
waving a cape at Dr. Bernie Ludwig,
I've the pictures to prove it.

If you haven't read anything by Stuart Ross, Hey, Crumbling Balcony! is your one-stop shopping experience to catch up on the work Ross has been contributing to Canlit in chapbook after chapbook, and other work, since 1978. Subtitled "Poems New & Selected," Hey, Crumbling Balcony! is one of the milestone tomes of 2003. It is also a profoundly peculiar book ... or rather, a book full of the peculiar yet profound.

In thinking about what to write in this review, those two words kept coming to the fore: peculiar, profound. The sample quoted above provides enough of an example. Normally, one would accuse writing that addresses an inanimate object (balcony) as if it were a live, thinking, feeling thing (hey) of one of the basest of flaws: "The balcony is not listening, Stuart." But Ross's writing demands its own rules. In Ross's world, the balcony is listening and thinking and more than likely feeling. Salvador Dali is not Rembrandt, and Ross is not Dickens; he is closer to Kafka, Lewis Caroll, and Dr. Suess. 

Like the work of those writers, what is perhaps most striking about Ross's work is the originality of its point of view. It is strange, yes. But it is not scattergun weird. It is patterned; it is consistent; it is art. Ross gives us a re-imagined world, and the shape of that world becomes clearer as one reads poem after poem. Ross's poetry is marked by a singular peculiar vision, echoing with profundity, sustained over time. 

His poems often mix concrete detail (often images of marginalia, decay, weakness ... a crumbling balcony) with flights of surrealism. But there is more than surrealism in Ross's work. At least, there is more than weirdness. I am tempted to say, "There is truth," but what is that? Perhaps this quotation from George Saunders provides a clue. Saunders is the American short story writer, whose own writing is a tad odd. In this quotation, he is speaking of where his writing comes from: 

What took me a really long time was realizing that just using my internal voice was all right, and it was the one I actually had to use. That internal voice was not anti-artistic, exactly, but it wasn't one I'd seen or heard before. I can remember thinking, You mean I should write that way, just like I think? It was really liberating for me to say, "I'm going to be a goofball for the rest of my life. I'm going to be a ninety-year-old guy with a fart cushion." It took a great weight off my shoulders.


That's truth. Feeling free to be yourself. Putting on the page the voice you hear in your head, and not trying to filter your voice to please anyone else: parents, teachers, publishers, editors, readers. 

Ross's voice resonates with integrity. The voice is his poems echoes Kafka in that his narrators are often victims of the world's absurdities. His poems echo the work of Dr. Suess in their whimsy. At base, however, the poems belong to Ross alone. They speak human truths, human realities. The repeated message is: It's a strange world out there, a world with few solids, a world within which the only thing stable is instability. There are references to the real world -- Benjamin Peret, Ross's childhood friends, Randy Newman ... attempts at connection that never seem to connect ... but there is also deep feeling. Isn't this a deeper kind of realism? It is the way the world is. Fragmentary. Always on the verge of collapse. 

Some may find these poems freakish; they are lovely.

In Tight Like That, Jim Christy's short story collection, the world is also lovely and freakish. My mother read this book before I had a chance to read it. She liked it. It isn't the sort of book I thought my mother would like. My mother reads Ruth Rendell. Jim Christy is closer to Charles Bukowski than he is to a British mystery writer. I think what my mother liked about these stories was their lack of pretense. Tight Like That presents fourteen stories about characters caught on the rough edges of society, but his characters are not caught in bitterness, nor are they presented as symbols of injustice and oppression. Christy tells worthy stories, honest stories, well-written stories, too. 

Well-written in a plain style, it is perhaps necessary to say, since Christy's writing is the type that high-minded literary readers might distrust. The writing may appear naive, it may appear unaware of it connotations, but it is not (in fact, Christy often lulls the reader into expecting one outcome before revealing another). Christy's storytelling is keen-minded, clever, and always one step ahead of cliché. A bit like a British mystery writer, one is tempted to say. 

The back cover of Tight Like That says:

The stories in Jim Christy's latest collection span time and space, taking us from the depression-era Deep South to the modern-day commute. Private eyes. Old drunks. Yuppies, hippies, and everyone in between gets the trademark Christy work-over. His characters inhabit a world where one wrong move, no matter how small, can set in motion the direst of consequences. Luckily, they don't let it get in the way of having a fine old time. Compelling, transforming, this collection makes you long for the days when a cup of coffee cost a dime, and dignity wasn't for sale.

I don't normally quote advertising copy in reviews, but here I make an exception because the above paragraph is an excellent summary of the book, though I have a couple of nits to pick.

First, "the trademark Christy work-over." Not having read any other Christy, I'm not sure what this means. No one gets too much of a "work-over" in Tight Like That. Hypocrites are poked and prodded, yes. Radical feminists, the unthinking rich, politicians, narcissists generally. Christy's narrators stand up for common sense, decency, and the protection of real human connection. Christy's characters are often manly men, men who work with their muscles, men more well-connected to their bodies than to their minds, but his men are also in touch with their feelings, though they aren't likely to abstract them; they aren't Momma's boys, or friends of Freud.

Second, yes, dignity, truly, is not for sale in Christy's world. But, overall, the tone is not nostalgic, as the back cover blurb seems to suggest. Christy's stories are locked in the present. They are fine, entertaining tales, written in language direct and rife with integrity. The hint of nostalgia lingers perhaps because Christy's storytelling may strike some as old-fashioned. Those seeking hipster credentials can look elsewhere. Those hip to be square can check out Tight Like That

John Gould's kilter: 55 fictions was nominated for the 2003 Giller Prize. "Fifty-five fictions?" you ask. Yes, there are 55 in this book's 205 pages, an average of less than four pages per story. So, it didn't surprise this reader that many of the stories feel like fragments, aborted beginnings, chunks of middle. Which can be just fine, if the writing is strong. And it is here, as the Giller nomination suggests. Gould's collected fragments add up to a sum that is greater than its parts. 

Here is the opening of the first story in the book:

I liked it better back when my son was into stuff I could understand. Sex, drugs, rock'n'roll. Or rap, I guess you'd call it, Yo, mufo, kind of thing, the white boy's black dream. The big challenge in those days was to keep myself upright on the couch late enough at night to catch him creeping in, reeking of rum and Pepsi and Players Light, mauve hair all mussed up, buttons in all the wrong button holes. What would his mother have said? I'd ask myself.

"What would your mother have said?" I'd ask him.

In contrast to Christy's manly men, Gould's men are self-doubters. They are anxious. They are emotionally complicated, in that never-ending contradictory sort of way that cliché says is the singular realm of women (it isn't). If Christy tends towards Bukowski, Gould tends towards the Richard Ford of The Sportswriter.

For example, let's look at the story "Near-Death Experience." A mother is dying in hospital. Her daughter, Boo, and the daughter's partner, Jack, sit by her bed. The dying woman is asleep, semi-comatose, drifting towards death. The story begins with Jack wanting to ask the dying woman about her experience. As he explains to Boo: "How many chances like this does a person get?"

Jack whispers, "She's been where we're all going, Boo. Aren't you the tiniest bit curious about what she's seen?"

"No. And anyway, I know what she's seen. She's seen what she's always seen when she closes her eyes. She sees the inside of her head."

Later, Jack asks Boo what she would tell their child, if they had one, about "this" (death, the afterlife, belief systems).

"I'd tell her . . . I have no idea what I'd tell her," says Boo. "I'd tell her you can't believe anything, you can't count on anything. I'd tell her the only thing you can count on is the absolute, the infinite. Anything less than that is a crock."

Jack says, "The absolute? The infinite?"

"I have no idea. Mom, I miss you, I do." Boo takes her mother's hand, kneads a knobby joint between her fingertips.

"Near-Death Experience" covers barely four pages, and yet its subject matter is as large as can be: death, love, the infinite. It is also representative of Gould's other stories: the asking of big questions, the ambiguous answers, the focus on the domestic. The emphasis on small moments of truth: Boo will miss her mother, she offers the simple solace of touch.  

kilter: 55 fictions was a worthy nomination for the 2003 Giller Prize. Some might find its tone of post-modern skepticism relentless. Some might wish the stories pushed outward, included more of the social context of its narrators, instead of keeping its eye inward on relationships. Sure, whatever. Gould's vision is his own, and in this book it is well realized. 

Curiosity to Satisfy and Fear to Placate, a new chapbook of 11 stories in 23 pages from Mercutio Press, by J.J. Steinfeld takes a philosophical approach to big questions and ambiguous answers. One is challenged to articulate the difference between Steinfeld and Gould. Gould may be more skeptical than Christy, but Steinfeld is more skeptical than Gould. Gould still finds some still points (see the "knobby joint" above); Steinfeld, like Ross, articulates instability.

In a recent interview with TDR, Steinfeld speaks about his affinity for the writing of Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka:

While I have been drawn to the work of Beckett and Kafka because they make me feel not alone, I cannot explain why they tickle my fancy. Simply put, their writing makes sense to me. Of all of Beckett’s extraordinary work, it is his play Waiting for Godot that I have often revisited as a source of (disturbing) comfort. In fact, the only play I’ve ever directed is a short one I wrote, Godot’s Leafless Tree, about a character who is convinced that today is the day that Godot finally arrives. I also have a story version of this play, and it appears in Would You Hide Me?

The stories in Curiosity to Satisfy and Fear to Placate are drawn from the same inspiration. At least, they belong to the same gen(i)us and species. 

In the first story, the narrator glances at a headline in the newspaper: DRINKER CHOKES TO DEATH ON WORD. Looking more closely, the narrator finds the dead person choked on a "worm." The story concludes: "You use your old fountain pen to change a single headline letter, M to D, proofreader craving redemption, and feel a little less uneasy about the dangerous semantics in the world."

The second story is called, "You Remember Sitting Across from God." This story is also written in the second person. It begins: "While you are being interrogated ... you are told in no uncertain terms that God is in the room silently observing your behaviour." Yes, Kafka's The Trial is a precursor. So are the Ten Commandments. This story ends: "Everyone in the cold interrogation room, except you, claims to be God, but you cannot see their eyes in the dark."

The third story seems to switch from first-person to second-person between the first and second paragraphs. It is called, "Exactitude is for Suckers." In it, the narrator meets a "wild-eyed street preacher" on a street corner. The preacher says, "Exactitude is for suckers and physicians nearing retirement." The narrator replies, "The history of the world should be written as to what we remember and what we forget, what we kill and what we pass over, what we love, what we hate, yes, and what we want and what gets thrown into our lives unwanted." The preacher and a nearby busker go silent. They "flee down a side street slick with rain and remorse, the emptiness now your captive audience, and leaving you certain about uncertainty."

Certain about uncertainty. The post-modern condition. When J.M. Coetzee recently won the Nobel Prize, he went to Stockholm to give his acceptance speech and read a short story instead. The press asked him, "Who was the man in your story?" Coetzee answered, "I'm not sure." The only thing stable is instability. Nobel Prize winners tell us this, so do Canadian small press writers.

Curiosity to Satisfy and Fear to Placate packs a big punch for such a small collection. It is not the usual chapbook fare. It is literature daring to ask big questions ... and admitting that the answers will still be a long time coming.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.