canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Kissing the Damned

by Mark Foss
Oberon, 2005

Reviewed by Devon Shepherd

Kissing the Damned is a book of linked short stories by Mark Foss that follows Murray Lockhart, of whom the back jacket warns "is very good at thinking up touching appeals for money, but in his own life, finds it difficult to open his heart to love". The trouble with Murray – a directmail marketer for Friends of Africa is not merely that he finds dismantling the wall that guards his heart arduous and seldom worth the bother, it’s that he lacks the required skillset to love. And woe to anyone willing to play teacher, for only one fate awaits her – the puncture and subsequent severing of her heart by Murray’s "patented souldestroying glare". 

Although we are told often – lest we forget about the menacing glare that has "poisoned relationships with Cassandra, Nicky and Paulette", and is capable of dramatic effects like "pummeling Lisa against a chair" so that she "touched her lips as if to check for blood", it remains a vague (read: unconvincing) addition to a character who is so skilled at sabotaging his relationships that such a behavioural quirk strikes the reader as contrived. That is, the look, is an annoying, ineffective addition. The same can be said for other elements of this book.

Consider the structure. This book is more than a collection of stories. Rather it reads like a parade of episodes – visits to Murray’s parents, Burt and Virgie’s, cottage on ..., a college party; escorting a Nigerian across the frozen Rideau Canal; close encounters of a sexual kind in Tazania – that illustrate how Murray wears his flaws like water wings, to keep himself bobbing on the surface of his relationships. While there are some notable exceptions (Guest House, Escort), each episode has not been structured well enough to withstand the winds of scrutiny were it to stand on its own. However, the stories, arranged together, buttress and shield each other. Here, the sum stands, surprisingly strong, however flimsy its parts. Than why, pray tell, has Foss inserted these annoying recapsparagraphs that summarize or relay information of an episode prior – that unnecessarily detract from the precarious strength of this work that only derives from stories as a collection?

Perhaps more puzzling than the structure are the threads left dangling carelessly throughout the book. Murray’s father, Burt lost his friend, Ted, to a torpedo strike at war. Ted, a childhood friend, saved Burt’s life when he fell through a thin patch of ice when they were boys. Murray claims , "he hardly ever talked about the war until I came home that night with the earring. I guess he lost Ted and then he thought he lost me to the world of homosexuals." But the fear is not solely his father’s. Murray, himself, shudders at the touch of another man and his blood boils when taunted with the slur "faggot". He also fears losing his girlfriend Lisa to her lesbian friend, Brie. All this sexual anxiety and homophobia for what? Is the implication that Burt and Ted’s relationship was, even if unconsummated, homoerotic? Does Murray sense this, but unable to deal with it, come to fear his own (and others’) homoerotic impulses? Or is this reader trying hard to be charitable, trying hard to give purpose to these little extra pieces that dangle around, distracting teasers that never really deliver on the depth that is promised.

With all that being said, there are still things here to be admired. Foss tells Murray story in the perfect pitch a loose comfortable style that rarely strikes a false note. Moreover, there are some real gems among the episodes. The Escort, expertly juxtaposes the emotionally frigid Murray with jocular warmth of Frank Chande, a visitor from Nigeria, and in doing so, poignantly illustrates just how hard it is for Murray to reach out. Sleepover captures that ambivalence that we often feel, but rarely admit, at the beginning of a relationship. Games We Play expertly draws on the tensions that exist between friends. Most of Foss’ characters read true. Murray, however emotionally stunted, is complex and likable, and in his exchanges with Brie, a unique and well constructed character, slice of real comedy shine through.

However, faults and all, Kissing the Damned is an entertaining collection.

Devon Shepherd is a Vancouver based writer, who will always be a Torontonian heart.






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