The Reader XIV II - Casino And Other Stories

Casino And Other Stories

By Bonnie Burnard
Harpercollins, Toronto, 1994, 160 pp., $22.95
Reviewed by Andreas Schroeder

Reading most short fiction today, it's almost impossible not to conclude that we're all going to hell in a handbasket. Families seem invariably to disintegrate, couples shunt and uncouple, priests, doctors and teachers abuse their charges, and everybody sinks beneath a sea of garbage and pollution.

That doesn't seem to be happening in Bonnie Burnard's fiction.

Not that she's oblivious to these very real social afflictions. They're there; they hover around the peripheries of her stories. But they're not what her stories are about. In fact, her refusal to be drawn into the lemming-like conviction that all is lost, all is hopeless, gives her stories an air of quiet defiance, an almost anachronistic sturdiness--- stories that don't deny the craziness all around us, but insist that that's not the only thing we're surrounded by:

She wants to call the Globe & Mail, collect, ask to talk to an editor. She thinks she could try to make it clear to him that she is sane. She could try to make it clear to him that he should make room in the midst of his other news, one page would seem generous, for a full-colour Saturday spread on her son's Ontario uncles, who are nothing more than grown-up, dependable, funny, complicated, sorrowful, good men. Grown-up, dependable, funny, complicated, sorrowful, good men who don't lay money on bleeding dogs in dark barns, or pound other men's skulls, or dream in madness. . . .

---"Breaking the Law"

Come to think of it, that's not a bad capsule description of Casino and Other Stories: "grown-up, dependable, funny, complicated, sorrowful." Not youthful stories that exuberantly tear everything down; not early adult stories that make amusing virtues of the mid-life challenges of social and economic survival. These are mostly stories of the next phase, the one in which one begins to sift through life's debris, to decide what it's all been worth and what it finally means. Stories that take an increasingly global view, a bird's-eye perspective:

Late in the night when the house is quiet, she has allowed herself to wonder what she will leave, and who might want to lay a claim. Who, for instance, might want those stones she's stolen from other continents? Who might want the glass box that holds them? Her books? The jade ring she bought with her first kids-all-in-school paycheque in a narrow hole-in-the-wall estate jewellery store in Vancouver? The coy figurines, which are still, given the distances they've travelled, almost pristine?


Most of the characters in this collection have been (as Wall Street would say) "fully invested" in the commitments and rites that society marks with public ceremonies. In "Nipple Man", a middle-aged history professor (married, divorced, now with adult children) must discover, in finally taking up with another woman his own age, that by our middle forties, we're all battle-scarred beyond what we might be prepared to countenance or admit. In "Jiggle Flicks" Heather, the protagonist (divorced, single mother, professional) encounters an old lover at an administrators' conference in Vancouver, and must discover her own version of the same truth:

Later, in bed, he began the real telling by saying that he'd turned fifty-five since they'd last been together. Happy Birthday, she said. What should I get you? What do you want? He told her that he'd had a new will drawn up and that he'd lost fifteen pounds, jogging, and she said, Oh, yes you have, of course you have. He told her he'd decided there was enough deterioration in middle age without extra weight to compound the problem and she laughed and said, Don't I know, although weight had never been a problem for her. She did say, I used to have a chicken pox scar as big as a dime on my forehead, and now it's in my eyebrow. She did say, Where do you think it's heading? And when he told her he'd culled his wardrobe and his personal files, filled three bags for the Sally Ann and as many again for the dump, she said, I should do that.

Then he asked did she believe in one true and perfect love. Not any more, she said, but he didn't hear. This was to be a telling, not a talk. She laughed at him, already afraid, and then a fog settled in around her, as thick as the fog in a field of icebergs. . . .

It's no accident, I think, that Burnard has been developing a story style that's increasingly formal, more distant, more understated than her previous fictions in Women of Influence (Coteau). None of the stories in Casino & Other Stories, for example, is written in the first person, and if names are used at all, they're generally established at the beginning and then rarely mentioned again. Oddly enough, this merely serves to heighten the book's intensity and drama. Several stories, such as "Casino" and "Ten Men Respond to an Air-Brushed Photograph of a Nude Woman Chained to a Bull," are constructed more like segmented summaries, each "summary" under a separate heading, with no plot in the conventional sense, but rather an overview of many parallel simultaneous lives seen from an omniscient point of view. It's as if the author's interest in the story has grown to include everyone touched by its incident(s), regardless of whether s/he functions as major character, minor character, or just hanger-on. The concern has become community-wide, not just personal. And the attitude, despite everything (maybe because of everything) has become wryly, soberly, sanguine.

In 1988 Bonnie Burnard won the prestigious Commonwealth Literary Award for Best First Book for Women of Influence. Casino & Other Stories proves indisputably that that award was no fluke.

Andreas Schroeder lives in Mission, BC and is the author of several books including The Mennonites.

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