Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

A Short Journey by Car

by Liam Durcan

Uncommonly ambitious, Liam Durcan’s debut story collection is also unusually mixed in quality. Beginning authors tend to underimagine their fictional worlds and remain cautious in style, arriving at neither bold achievement nor outright failure. But Durcan, a Montreal neurologist, takes a catholic approach to both subject matter and form in this collection’s 16 stories. Which means that A Short Journey by Car shows off both some promising work and a few pratfalls.

At his best, Durcan throws believable characters into quirky situations, and he’s got a gift for dispensing information in tantalizing pieces. The title story features a Soviet dentist whose fortunes rise and fall after he’s entrusted with the care of Stalin’s teeth. The hero of “American Standard” is a failed hockey star reduced to smuggling toilets, trucking a load of “big flush” models down the 401 to Detroit. And “Control” is the hugely entertaining tale of an aimless young man who finds a false sense of meaning in a clinical trial for mood-altering drugs.

Too many writers simply build their characters’ biographies around thematic motifs, but Durcan shows a genuine curiosity about people – their relationships, their jobs, their lives – that lends depth to his work. That quality allows him to flirt with narrative contrivances (as in “The Blue Angel,” about a Montreal subway-car driver who attracts multiple suicide jumpers) without sacrificing the reader’s credulity or compassion. And he’s deft on a small scale, too: “Kick” is a short and lovely mood piece about the anxiety of expectant motherhood.

Unfortunately, the collection is also padded with some mere vignettes, and some pieces that resemble writing exercises more than properly conceived stories. “Lumière,” an unadorned account of an early motion-picture demonstration at a Paris café, is nimbly written but still feels pointless. And the collage-style format of “Nolan, an Exegesis,” a hodgepodge of first-person testimony, news clippings, and even screenplay excerpts, reads as a tedious attempt to gussy up an underdeveloped premise.

Still, even when he’s falling flat, Durcan is a smooth and confident writer. Some hit-and-miss is inevitable in a collection of this breadth, and Short Journey’s good stuff bodes well for the author’s future work.