Issue #186 - Ian Colford

Ian Colford



The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Short Fiction edited by Larry Mathews (St. John’s, NL: Breakwater Books, 2015, 182 pp., $19.95).


Anyone who has assembled a collection of writing for an anthology — essays, poetry, prose, drama — knows that luck, randomness and subjectivity are unavoidable. Given limited space and an abundance of deserving contributors, any number of factors can come into play when making decisions about who to include and who to leave out, factors that sometimes have little to do with literary merit. To his credit, Larry Mathews addresses this issue head-on in his introduction to the present volume, making no claims of canonical authority and admitting up front that his choices are “based mostly on my personal taste, my sense of what, in the vast array of short fiction published by Newfoundland-based writers over the last three decades or so, is most successful in terms of aesthetic merit as intuited by me.” He goes on to describe in eloquent fashion the qualities of fiction that he finds most engaging and asserts, “with traditional editorial belligerence,” that the stories he’s included possess those qualities “in spades.”

     Mathews uses the rest of the introduction to not so much defend his choices or attempt to sway the reader as to explain specifically and in detail why these editorial decisions were made. Make no mistake, it’s useful to know why a particular story has ended up in the pages of an anthology, and to understand the principles and parameters that drove the selection process. But in the final analysis, the success or failure of the volume depends on the quality of the writing. So what can we make of The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Short Fiction?

     First of all, it must be said that Larry Mathews has brought together a vastly entertaining collection of stories by some of the more recognizable names in the Newfoundland literary landscape, along with a few by writers whose names might not be immediately familiar. All of the stories are strong. All of them exhibit the kind of narrative urgency and imaginative wordplay that make for compelling reading. The degree to which the stories reflect Newfoundland culture varies, but this is hardly a concern. Where, after all, does it say that Newfoundland writers have to write about Newfoundland?

     The anthology kicks off with “Fogbound in Avalon” by Elizabeth McGrath, originally published in The New Yorker and subsequently included in the 1981 edition of The Best American Short Stories. This, McGrath’s only published fiction, is the story of Anne O’Neill, who, as the story opens, is escaping a rotten marriage and returning to St. John’s with her three children. Anne has friends and family in St. John’s, but ends up spending most of her time alone as she restores to livable condition a house she owns that her tenants nearly wrecked, while smoking and drinking too much and worrying about money. What sustains her is her pragmatism. Anne — impulsive and not given to mincing her words — has no faith in dreams and refuses to unload her problems on other people. The only thing of which she is absolutely certain is that her fate rests in her own hands, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Doggedly loyal to the truth, she doesn’t hesitate to point out the deficiencies of others but is particularly hard on herself, at one point admitting, “I watched, I listened, I cared. Nothing else was possible for me. I was through with moral imperatives. I care, therefore I am. I think, therefore I will make mistakes.” McGrath’s story, a tour-de-force of hardscrabble realism, ends on a wistful note as Anne realizes that, despite her affection for the island and its people, the restlessness in her nature that made her leave once before is going to force her to leave again.

     Bernice Morgan’s “Vain Deceit” is a story that emerges from a similar aesthetic of austerity, one that assumes that life is difficult and adversity is inevitable. In her old age Kate Foley is confined to hospital, undergoing treatment for a malfunctioning valve in her chest. She may be old, but her memory is just fine, and with time on her hands her thoughts roam: to the day when her widowed, Bible-thumping mother took her from her home in Bonivista Bay to St. John’s, to the day in 1945 when Kate, already miserable in marriage to suspicious and intolerant Frank, left her infant son with her dull-witted niece in order to join the celebrations marking the end of World War II and engaged in a reckless indiscretion. With happiness a scarce commodity in Kate’s life, the brief flashes of joy that have come her way cause her no regrets at all.

     The contributions by Michael Winter and Michael Crummey introduce a male perspective to the anthology. Winter’s story, “Deep in My Brother,” is a series of cryptically comic episodes set in and around Corner Brook and narrated by Gabe, concerning his own dubious past and that of his eccentric brother Junior (“June”), whose antics over many years include car accidents and near drownings, get-rich-quick schemes that always come up short, and dispensing nuggets of homespun philosophy: “Some people never become themselves because they’re afraid to be fools.” The story, composed of scenes arranged in no particular order and stripped of narrative cues and signposts, is a stellar example of this author’s adventurous creative spirit and willingness to challenge his readers, though in the end its rewards are cerebral rather than visceral. In Michael Crummey’s “What Possessed Him,” a more conventionally structured but deeply poignant and bittersweet story of longing and regret, Hayward, in his seventies, dying of lung cancer, struggling with the task of informing his children of his illness, recalls an episode from fifty years earlier when, in a moment of vulnerability, when he felt lost and stricken by the new responsibility of being a father, temptation almost caused him to throw away the life he was building with his wife Etta, who had just given birth to their first child.

     Ramona Dearing’s “An Apology” cuts to the emotional crux of the matter, exploring the Mount Cashel sexual abuse scandal through the character of former Christian Brother Gerard Lundrigan, who has returned to St. John’s for his trial. Lundrigan is a particularly loathsome individual, with a short fuse and a distorted take on reality. As a procession of accusers narrate their experiences he sits in silent judgment of them, declaring them losers, belittling them for their weakness, their criminal records and addictions, all the while shaking his head that they have failed in life despite everything that was done for them at the orphanage. It soon becomes apparent to the reader that Lundrigan is living in a fog of denial, unable to face what he has done. In his mind he has erected a fantasy in which he is the wronged party and everyone else is either misguided or malicious. The story packs a wallop, because we know what he is protecting himself from and why. At the end, with the testimony in and the verdict imminent, with his confidence eroded and his fantasy showing signs of breaking down, he seems on the cusp of a reluctant self-awareness. Dearing’s ability to convincingly inhabit the mind of Gerard Lundrigan is eerie and disturbing, and the story she has crafted is a triumph.

     Kathleen Winter’s “Darling’s Kingdom” also has as its focus a character of dubious morality. In this story, Violet, the narrator, and her husband Frank are leaving Pencil Cove and have put out word that their home and property are available. Up steps Gus Darling with a rental offer and $900 cash to back it up. For as long as anyone can remember the Darlings have been aggressive and domineering in their exploitation of the economic opportunities the cove presents — raising cattle and harvesting cranberries — while forcing out anyone else who attempts to profit from this bounty. The Darlings preside in the manner of a Mafia family, with subtle menace. No violence has actually taken place, but still no one dares cross them. Invited to the going-away party, Gus brings enough fresh crab to feed all the guests but also proceeds to get drunk and insult anyone sensitive enough to take his loutish provocations at face value. To Violet he describes his plans for the property once he’s moved in: draining the bog, harvesting the wildlife, expanding his domain by nudging the boundary markers outward a few feet every now and then when no one is looking. Violet, something of a free spirit, is repelled and attracted in equal measure. She loves the place and suspects Gus will destroy it, but she does not love her neighbours, who seem to be mostly uptight self-righteous assholes. Drunk and ambivalent and feeling more than a little reckless, she elects to take a ride with Gus, not knowing where it will end.

     Two overtly comic stories follow. “Brute” by Jessica Grant is narrated by Big Cy, a “pit bull mix,” accustomed to living rough and scrounging meals out of garbage bins prior to moving in with “Grassy” Noel Deshorties (not without a struggle though, on Noel’s part, to eject Big Cy from his car). The entertainment value this story brings to the proceedings is Grant’s wry depiction of life from an unloved and unwanted dog’s point of view, and whose mindset is that of a sociopathic juvenile delinquent. Grant accomplishes this astonishing feat of narrative empathy with her eye for telling detail and exquisitely droll sense of humour. Edward Riche’s “Deer Friends,” an excerpt from a work in progress, lampoons the language of bureaucracy as city officials debate how best to deal with a man living in a local park whose advocates maintain it’s not a case of someone who thinks he’s a deer, but someone who’s “transitioning” into a deer. As always with Riche, even when the premise is far-fetched and the humour applied in broad strokes, the pacing is brisk and the dialogue razor sharp and often hilarious. However, the fragmentary nature of the piece compromises its effectiveness and leaves the reader a bit nonplussed by the abrupt ending.

     “West Orange,” by David Andrews, published here for the first time, is the story of McEwan, a loner who has retreated from an unspecified former life to undistinguished retirement in a beach community. One night, stumbling home in the dark after drinking too much, he finds a spent roll of film in the sand. He is at the point of throwing it away when the temptation of “seeing his home through someone else’s eyes” makes him pause and the next day he takes it to a shop to have it developed. As he suspects, the pictures are of a group of young vacationers, partying, posing and mugging for the camera. In particular, his eye is caught by several photos of a bikini-clad young woman, who, because the photos are overexposed, becomes in his mind the “shining girl.” Later that afternoon and into the evening, McEwan shares banter with local characters such as Jamieson, Sunflower and Divemaster Dan. The reader intuits that, sadly, this is the repeating pattern of McEwan’s life: aimless days and long evenings spent in boozy camaraderie with people he hardly knows and cares little for. McEwan’s emotional isolation is poignantly brought home the next day when, hungover, his gaze again falls on the picture of the shining girl, and we sense a genuine longing for emotional involvement that will probably never materialize.

     The last story in the anthology, Lisa Moore’s “But Lovers with the Intensity I’m Talking About,” also published here for the first time, is again about people trying to connect, or re-connect, though this time it is a chance encounter in a grocery store in the middle of a snowstorm that brings a pair of former lovers together. It is thirty-five years since Jim and Marissa engaged in a brief but all-consuming affair, the kind of idealized physical love that sucks the lovers into a vortex and blinds them to all that is going on around them as they feed their lust on each other’s desire. It’s also a kind of love that burns out quickly, and this is what happened to Jim and Marissa, though Jim, in the telling, can’t remember how or why they broke up, except to say that when the time came they both knew that it was over. Jim suspects that his younger self somehow failed to live up to Marissa’s expectations, that he wilted under her constant attention and the intensity of her need. Moore’s narrative meanders confidently from the past to the present and back again, melding the two, as Jim recalls what it was like to be twenty and the sole focus of Marissa’s passion and how easily he let it engulf him, and reflects on the mundane career and unexciting yet stable marriage to Jillian that followed. The swirl of Jim’s emotions is matched by the swirling storm that has engulfed the city and forced him and Marissa into close quarters for the first time in years. Moore’s prose is richly detailed and offers moments of stunning emotional authenticity. It is a mesmerizing performance.

     Reading the collection from front to back, one is reminded that the literature of contemporary Newfoundland is the literature of people for whom comforts are hard won and the struggle to put food on the table and keep the kids warm and dry never lets up. These characters are not the sons and daughters of privilege. They’ve earned everything they own through sacrifice and hard work. They’ve suffered disappointment and learned to compromise. They’ve learned that you’re a fool if you let yourself be distracted by government promises that prosperity is just around the corner. These people assume that life will be hard, that the wind will be cold, that love is elusive, and that happiness, if and when you find it, will probably be fleeting. If there is a thread running through these stories, perhaps this is it.

     With the quality of the writing uniformly high throughout, what is there to quibble with? We could take issue with the absence of some notable names, such as Wayne Johnston, Kenneth J. Harvey, Donna Morrissey, Michelle Butler Hallett and Robin McGrath. But then one remembers that Larry Mathews faced an impossible task when he agreed to edit this volume because in the last thirty years Newfoundland has produced more than its fair share of excellent writers of fiction, and an anthology that included everybody whose work deserves recognition would be unwieldy and possibly too heavy to lift. The very act of making a selection means that good work by talented writers is going to be left out. But The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Short Fiction more than fulfills its mandate, by bringing together into one volume a rich and varied sampling of the best fiction Newfoundland has to offer.