Strays: Stories by Ed Kavanagh (St. John’s, NL: Killick Press, 2013, 208 pp., $18.95).
Ed Kavanagh’s collection of short stories, Strays, was shortlisted for both the 2014 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the 2014 Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards. As a summary-of-sorts, this level of recognition ought to tell a serious book buyer something about the book’s worth. In what follows, I supply some of the evidence that accounts for these laurels.
Strays gathers the ordinary, seemingly shapeless lives of Newfoundlanders young and old, at home and away, and reports the meaning of their struggles. (In the true spirit of the book’s title, there is also the outlier: “Nice Boy,” which is set in England and is about a young British lawyer and a Chilean immigrant.) There are nine Chekhovian slices of life here, and one — “The Strayaway Child” — Munrovian chronicle. It is this last piece that many readers will find most affecting. This is not to suggest that the other nine stories are somehow heartless or cynical; but their strengths lie in the fact that they spread themselves outward, over the series of events, rather than inward through depiction of character.
Of the first nine, the title story, “Strays,” and another, “Houses,” best represent for the purposes of this review the range of Ed Kavanagh’s storytelling skills. “Strays” is set in pre-child-advocacy days when foster children were entirely subject to the lot of the foster parent lottery. If you were in the system, you were, in all senses of the phrase, at the mercy of the fates. But neglect and deprivations are not something that the young characters in any of these stories dwell on and neither does the author. Rather, Kavanagh’s strays, like the dog that is the subject of the main character’s concerns, simply make sense of things and carry on. It is as automatic as breathing: the world throws at us its curves and its screwballs and we must take our three swings.
There will be no dwelling in uncertainty and related hand-wringing in any of Kavanagh’s stories. His characters always keep moving forward (with rare exceptions) and do so with grace. Now, it’s true that all of us have Hamlet moments, periods of irresolution and doubt. Often, for many, this leads to the Scylla of cynicism or the Charybdis of fantasy. But one of the pleasures of Kavanagh’s narrative attitude is that he successfully walks that fine line between debilitating irony and unrealistic romanticizing. Perhaps it is because many of his narrators are young or are remembering their younger selves that they simply don’t have the language for overcooked self-analysis. Certainly that must be a factor, but the impression is rather that Kavanagh knows, as Mike in “Wind” puts it, that when you’re on the water and about to be sick the best thing to do is “‘Just grab on and stare at the horizon.’”
This philosophy “‘steadies you against the tilt of the world’” avers Mike. Most of Kavanagh’s characters seem to know this instinctively. Callie, the young narrator of “Strays,” meditates on her own condition and learns that dichotomizing the world between “big-bus people and little-bus people; Catholic people and Protestant people; people who have real parents and people like me who have foster ones” ultimately leads nowhere. There is always another story hiding inside a person’s public story, like nested Russian dolls. The dog — Prince — that Callie believes Michael, her mentally handicapped neighbour, does not deserve to own because the latter is unable to understand and respond to Prince’s needs becomes the source for Callie’s epiphany. Callie wonders if maybe Michael is also a stray and that “with Prince he was a little less of a stray.” Ruminating on this thought, Callie is struck by the more profound thought that “Maybe the world is not divided up so easily. Maybe we’re all strays. Maybe we all need a few prayers. And, if we do, I don’t suppose it makes much difference who says them.”
There is a loose-limbed quality about Kavanagh’s style that is quite effective. Minimal atmospherics — he’s the anti-Nabokov! — and an unobtrusive application of Newfoundland customs and dialect (even in a story about accents, such as “Wind”). These characteristics make a space for the narrative current to flow without resistance. There is little description of inner conflict. At first, one wonders if this is a flaw and whether it’s possible that the stories lack depth. Very soon, though, the reader is completely immersed, for Kavanagh knows his characters so thoroughly that he nails their inner lives with just the right detail and plot point. What characters say or do next reveals where their souls stand.
“Houses,” on the surface, appears to be one of those quaint Newfoundland stories about loopy characters from around the bay: folks who seem to go out of their way to patent the weird and the bizarre. A 15-year-old boy loves from afar a local maiden (three years older) and so builds her a house. A real house, but, with dimensions somewhere between a doll’s house and a ‘normal’ house. She rejects him and he leaves the house and his pursuit of her and heads off to the mainland for a few years. When he returns, he’s six foot five inches tall! The narrator, a grandson, many years distant from the life his grandmother, the pined-for local maiden, and long-dead grandfather, the house-builder, spent together in the house, is telling his townie girlfriend (“a chronic real estate addict”) this story as he drives her out to see the infamous house for the first time.
On the surface, odd enough. Yet, the cumulative effect is richer and more inventive and more touching than silly stereotypes would allow. There are references to Van Gogh, an inappropriate nickname and a twist on death-by-shaving. “Houses” is as rangy as Kavanagh’s other stories but nevertheless beautifully coherent. The narrator reports an earlier conversation with his 90-year-old grandmother in her nursing home:
“But why did he build it so small?”
“Why?” she said, and her pale lashes trembled. She took my hand and her voice fell to a whisper. “Because he loved me.”
After their viewing of the tiny house the girlfriend leaves unimpressed and, together, they return to the city “to a house with airy rooms and winding, polished staircases that, even with all the fires in, always felt cold.”
The last story, “The Strayaway Child,” comprises the final third of the book. It is, plainly put, one of the best stories I’ve read about connections: the universal connection we have (‘universal’ but still individual) to music and the personal connections between generations. Kavanagh eschews the sociological and analytic as he drills into the Bildung of his main character, Ivy. Her coming of age against the backdrop of the Depression in St. John’s is rendered fully without resorting to sentimental schmaltz, or an exaggerated griminess. The result is a true-to-life portrayal of a young girl confronting challenges and moving through them. Likewise, in his descriptions of the power of music and Ivy’s absorption of it and into it, Kavanagh confronts music’s mystical qualities but not at the expense of genuine and realistic experience with learning to play and appreciate an instrument. (No doubt the author’s own international success playing the Celtic harp helps in his presentation of the musical sensibility.)
Yep: Ed Kavanagh deserves the accolades named above. Simple and direct never was more sophisticated. Strays is a collection that resonates not for its Newfoundlandia but for the truthfulness of its magnanimity. Kavanagh’s stories, each of them, are suffused with an open-heartedness that has the depth of a lived philosophy. If Socrates told campfire stories, they would resemble Ed Kavanagh stories.