Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Bull Head

by John Vigna

My Life Among the Apes

by Cary Fagan

It’s likely that no short-story collection published this fall will enjoy the fanfare of Alice Munro’s Dear Life. But here are two other first-rate offerings worthy of attention. Although stylistically different, both collections deal with emotionally stranded individuals in desperate need of forward momentum.

Cary Fagan, an established Toronto writer with three previous collections under his belt (along with novels and books for children), is a writer whose critically lauded books regularly attract the notice of prize juries. He deserves an audience to match those plaudits. With any luck, My Life Among the Apes – which earned a spot on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist – will deliver that broader readership. The volume’s 10 stories are, without exception, splendid yarns, told with the practised ease of a natural storyteller.

Representative of the whole is “Dreyfus in Wichita,” the story of a grade-school music teacher and would-be composer who creates a musical based on the unlikeliest historical material: in 1899, a Jewish girl was voted carnival queen in Wichita, Kansas, as a sympathetic gesture of the town’s support for Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish military officer victimized by anti-Semitism in an infamous French court martial. The teacher, demoralized after being defrauded by a huckster who promises to stage the musical on Broadway, is encouraged by his spouse and a star pupil to organize a student production as part of the school’s annual fundraiser. The result is a consolation prize in the best possible sense of the term.

Other stories also deal with individuals who harbour artistic or creative aspirations. In “Shit Box,” a hapless pharmaceutical rep attempts to salve his broken heart by purchasing a beat-up, second-hand guitar and learning to play Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” for an open-mic night at a local dive. “The Brooklyn Revenge” is about a woman who takes up writing poetry after discovering her late husband had an affair with another woman. In the title story, a bank employee’s dreary office routine is balanced by fantasies of assisting primatologist Jane Goodall. Often, but not always, the stories contain wrinkles suggesting at least the possibility that an emotional or motivational impasse has been breached.

This is not so in the case of Vancouver-based newcomer John Vigna, who mostly follows the Raymond Carver model of leaving his characters pretty much as he finds them: in a pit of their own devising, with limited prospects of clawing their way out. Bull Head takes its name from a fictional mountain town in the Kootenay region of B.C., a world of miners, loggers, strippers, guys who drink beer straight from the pitcher, and other guys who train pit bulls to fight for sport (and sometimes profit). Although the collection’s eight stories don’t feature any overlapping characters, they are joined by the same hardscrabble, unforgiving setting, including the Northerner, the local bar where several of Vigna’s self-destructive fuck-ups invariably land.

The opening sentence of the first story, “Two-Step,” is emblematic of both Vigna’s writing style and the limitations of his characters’ horizons: “Arlene is both kinds of music: country and western.” Both kinds. Only two. The story probes the problematic relationship between two brothers trapped by events and patterns of behaviour established in their childhoods. The dynamic of troubled twosomes – siblings, friends, or lovers emotionally handcuffed to one another by their shared history – recurs in the stories that follow.

“Unflinching” is probably the best word to describe the author’s narrative approach. The reader, on the other hand, is free to recoil when confronted by scenes in which the cruelty humans display to animals is matched only by the callousness they show one another – often with as little remorse. No example, perhaps, is more cringe-inducing than “South Country,” a tale of two guys whose self-esteem is toxically grounded in matching each other’s boastful sexual conquests, with an item stolen from the unwitting female prey required as proof of success. This is not to say that only Vigna’s men are capable of inflicting damage and pain. In “Short Haul,” for example, a soft-hearted man has his emotional vulnerabilities ground under the boot of a manipulative, self-absorbed girlfriend.

The stories in Bull Head are classically tragic. While it’s true that nothing about Vigna’s protagonists suggests the heroic dimensions of a Macbeth or Lear, the doomed consequences that flow from their flaws are just as inevitable. Redemption – at least in this life – is largely beyond reach.

Ultimately, Vigna’s outlook is less forgiving and more fatalistic than Fagan’s. But each author draws compelling portraits of characters whose fates are bound, irrevocably or not, to the choices they make.

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