Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome marks a potent fiction debut for Newfoundland playwright Megan Gail Coles. These 16 stories are often rather brief, but rarely short on impact. The diverse characters are united in anger at – or at the very least, discontent with – the world, which imbues the collection with a propulsive tension and intensity. Heavy reliance on the present tense and the first-person voice generates a sense of immediacy, whether Coles is unfolding the inner monologue of a homeless person or examining the stereotype of women as natural nurturers. She frequently returns to the question of what it means to be at home – in the body, or in a particular place.
Coles has a particular gift for opening sentences. “Enthusiastic about Potatoes” begins: “I am the blackest man working at the Tim Hortons.” It’s one of several pieces that deal with racial and ethnic difference in culturally complicated settings like St. John’s and Montreal. In the closing lines of “There’s a Fishhook in Your Lip,” Haitian immigrant Modelaine makes a fateful birth-control decision without consulting her drunk, abusive pure laine lover. They might have a future together, we are told, “if only she weren’t so dark.” Sudden turns at a story’s end are a recurring device, and they are usually both surprising and convincing.
These stories are blunt and direct about sex, class, and the perils of the body. In “Everyone Eats While I Starve to Death Here,” a struggling, displaced Newfoundlander thinks all Montreal’s gays have him in their sights, when in fact random men in bars offer him lunch simply because he looks so hungry.
The only misstep is in organizing the book as a set of linked stories: most of the associations are fairly tangential, and sometimes unclear. Is Sadie, the little girl whose dad lived in a camper, the same Sadie who later in life dumps a wedding photographer to move away and become an ESL teacher? These faint echoes lead to confusion rather than illuminating theme, mood, or character. It’s an unnecessary distraction because, for the most part, these stories stand up quite strongly on their own.