A Story-by-Story Review of The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Short Fiction

Ever read a 4,200 word book review before? Take a pass on reading this review if you'd like, but don't miss out on the book itself.

Layout 1Having taught both creative writing and NL literature at MUN for decades, no one would argue that Larry Mathews — a terrific author in his own right – was the right person to have compiled The Breakwater Book of Contemporary NL Short Fiction.

Breakwater asked him to, and his reasoning behind each story makes for a nice prologue. The end result is ten stories that showcase and emphasize how well the sentence-level writing is in local fiction. As an added bonus, 3 of the stories have never appeared in book form until now. Jessica’s story appeared in The Walrus; Ed’s is an excerpt from a novel in progress; Lisa Moore’s is previously unpublished.

 “Fogbound in Avalon” by Elizabeth McGrath

“Fogbound in Avalon” is the first and only short story by a Newfoundlander to have been published in the New Yorker. It’s also the only short story Elizabeth McGrath ever published, adding a bit of mystery to the woman and her story.

Of talking about life in Newfoundland — and perhaps this is what the New Yorker liked (a glimpse into the uniqueness of life on an island) — the narrator writes “just about everybody here is related by blood, marriage, or sheer tomfoolery to everybody else … There is no secret service that can approach us. What may be called ESP elsewhere can be nailed down here by genealogy, and we are all expert.”

Such funny-because-they’re-true passages are interlaced with the plot: our narrator has returned to Newfoundland after leaving her husband. “It wasn’t very long ago that my children’s father, Con O’Neill, told me what was in his head, at my request. It took him 4 1/2 days, at the end of which I prevailed upon him to buy me four plane tickets from Vancouver to St. John’s.”

On her way back home, with 3 children in tow and no husband anymore, she’s seated on a plane beside an old boyfriend and polio survivor, and they dish on what became of their lives – it’s an opportunity to get to know our character, as much as a too-convenient rendezvous. Her grand return was spared from patriotic NL sappiness from how unglorified it was. “I read third-rate fiction and forth right biography, thought fifth rate thoughts, and felt sixth rate emotions. I was like a bird on a bush, waiting for whatever would happen next so that I would know what to do.”

The story is also about the narrator’s friendship with her lifelong friendship with her polar-opposite pal, Laurel. One of these women lives in squalor the other in a luxury home. The narrator has a come and go boyfriend, Laurel a perfect husband whom she’s bored by. One doesn’t want to work the other finds meaning in it in an academic sense, in fact the friends have little in common with each other beyond shared memories and experiences. Much like Newfoundlanders. We’re all alike in how living here shapes us, if unalike in terms of personality. All in all it’s a solid story that dishes on and delivers quite well the realities of being a Newfoundlander. And given its publication date (1980), it is proof of how little has changed about living here.

“Vain Deceit” by Bernice Morgan

There is one thing waiting for us in old age that is worth than death: regret. That’s the sentiment or theme in this piece. Vain deceit tells the story of hospital-bound Kate, a likeably lively elderly woman reflecting on her life. On the surface, it’s a tale of bay family moves to town and have mixed reactions. But Bernice’s writing and tone and main character ratchet things up a notch, transforming the piece into something with enough humanity and quality writing to escape falling into “heard it all before” territory. It’s a satisfying read. Things are kept interesting by the fact we don’t know why Kate is in hospital right away.

Also interesting is her unexpected perception or sentiments about being hospital-bound. She has no qualms about it. “Once home – back in familiar spaces … She will be expected to get Frank’s meals, to accompany him on countless errands, to wash and clean, to babysit one or another of her great-grandchildren whenever the need arises. Once home, worries about her three sons, about their wives, their ex-wives, their children and grandchildren, will flow in,  will fill every inch of her – the way a bucket is filled when you lower it into water.”

She’s been in the hospital long enough that the life she normally lives feels so far away now it’s as if it might not have even happened. Which is a perfect set up for one to ponder her life before now. With the added benefit that at a hospital, she doesn’t even worry about her own aging body. “Here it’s not her problem; she has placed her body in the hands of others.” Kate coming alive in a place most people feels miserable in and want to flee says all it has to about her feeling stuck in life. And like any good story, it begs the question: is this story about her, or all of us?

There are moments the story is overwhelmed by excessive description and memories that go beyond enlivening the story, to the point of dragging the story’s heels, but it’s overall a surprisingly rich and well-written story.

“Deep in my Brother” by Michael Winter

There was a line in the story, “I’m coming to realize there are no new thoughts.” It’s a sentiment shared by many writers and critics: there are no new stories. And that’s a fact that makes Michael Winter such an interesting writer: perhaps there aren’t any new stories to be told, but there are new ways of telling stories, of writing fiction, and this story showcases that.

In the story, he has removed all of the artificial architecture of writing that lets readers know they’re reading a story: there is no “here’s what’s going on, see? See what’s going on?” All the cues to the reader like backstory or even quotation marks are removed so the reader is left like a fly on the wall keeping up, ascertaining, curious in a new way we’re not accustomed to when reading a story.

Nothing much is going on in the story, and it’s not Michael’s best short story, but the reader is enthralled with this this piece from a structural and stylistic perspective. And his literary style (this story was published in 1999) has had a clear and profound influence on Newfoundland writers since. For example, he is a master of dialogue. In this story, conversations meander unexpectedly, you need to be actively engaged to even follow it, as is the case in real life – the conversations aren’t linear, people are referring back to previous comments, or they’re simultaneously thinking about something else, as we do in real life. Too often in stories, dialogue is clearly only there to drive the story forward and inform the reader of a chaarcter’s past, or personality, or to move the plot along.

Like any Michael Winter piece, it’s a composite of sharp character renderings, interactions, and relationship nuances that speak to the sheer audacity or wonder of being alive and interacting with the world around you. In this story, a one-page passage about a man running a chip truck isn’t about the chip truck, but rather, the kind of man the man running the chip truck is. All is observation in a Michael Winter short story.

“What Possessed Him” by Michael Crummey

A married couple deal with the husband’s terminal illness, as it coincides with watching their rural hometown systematically wither away as well. It’s a piece about the impact of birth (that of their children’s) and death (that of the husband’s) on two people in a relationship — as there’s nothing bigger they’ll share in their lives  together. Birth and death – in the context of a relationship – are the two things many couples, like these, aren’t so open with each other about. The wife never knows how afraid the narrator was when they had their first child. Nor the lines he almost crossed.

As for his impending death, it was decided they’d tell their two children after Christmas. Their kids are on their way home with their families to celebrate the holiday, and as the coupel awaits them, they go for a drive. But an image evokes a flashback in the main character, something he’d done in his past, and how he didn’t know, as the title declares, “what possessed him” on that night. As the memory unfolds, so does the reader’s comfort level.

“An Apology” by Ramona Dearing

“An Apology” tackles the dark territory of clergy sexual abuse. But not from a victim’s point of view. It’s tautly and directly told from the POV of one brother, Gerard Lundrigan. At the start of the story, he has just been summoned back to Newfoundland for his trial. “He’d forgotten what it’s like here. The wind is taking anything it can find.”

Dearing conjures all the palpable suspense and awkwardness and uneasiness that would surround a trial of this nature, and more surprisingly, all the emotions the brother would be going trough too. Her probing of Lundrigan even reveals how unaware he is of the monster inside of him.

When the first complainant takes the stand, he is obviously a man broken what happened to him in his childhood. But Gerard’s take on him is that he’s a drunk in a ridiculous burgundy velvet jacket. “He didn’t get that mumbling habit from his time at the orphanage. They’d taught pride there. Pride and decency and right-living.” We do learn the complainant has a criminal record, including theft and attacking a man with a beer bottle. “That’s the kind of low life he is. In and out of mental hospitals, with children spat out across northern Ontario like bits of gristle, and ex-wives lining up to get restraining orders.”

Lundrigan’s thoughts want to plant a seed of doubt in the reader’s mind, but if the complainant’s allegations are true, it’s no wonder he’s a wreck. Throughout the testimonies, Lundrigan is making notes: “The strap had nothing to do with me. Blame the era, not the man.” This kind of narrative effectively makes jurors of readers, creating a unique reading experience, which makes readers more invested in this story than normal.

Testimony after testimony Dearing daringly goes there with impactful one-liners that revolt and disturb and evoke sympathy for the complainants that Lundrigan consistently discredits. Lundrigan’s dark and hard view of these people, his lack of compassion or decency in how he speaks about other people, says a lot about him. He isn’t hurt to see broken men he once cared for turning on him: he is vile with contempt about such “losers” conspiring against him.

And the devil certainly wants sympathy here, as he relays what life was like for young brothers in this orphanage. A 23 year old waking daily at 5:30 in the morning to devote his life to these kids from getting them ready for school to meals to getting them ready for bed at night, and everything in between, all while a superior demands disciplined behaviour from these orphans, seemingly no matter how discipline is instilled. The narrator alludes to how quickly a young brother can go from wanting to serve, to being strung out on serving. It’s a decent point, but, we know from glimpses of how he is with his dog, and its dog-sitter while he’s on trial, that this is an angry, temperamental man.

Dearing deftly tells both sides of the stories, which is why this is such a strong piece. It goes beyond the gut-punching sympathy for victim, and into some grander, higher-level examination of the issue, to better explore this dark blotch on local history.

“Darling’s Kingdom” by Kathleen Winter

The Darling of the title isn’t a darling – it’s a questionable man’s surname. “The darlings have driven anyone who is not a darling out of Pencil Cove a generation ago, and now they were starting on each other.”

The narrator of the story is considering renting her and her husband’s beloved home in the woods to Gus Darling, a man of whom they’re skeptical of on account of his family name. To vet him, they invite him to their going away party, and it doesn’t necessarily go well, on account of say, Gus showing a 3 year old what happens when you throw a lighter into a fire, or the fact he asked a one-legged woman “what’s that like, anyway?” or the fact he thought it would be fine to share his thoughts on the sexual capacities of the women in the room. “Jesus, you have a sensitive bunch of friends, Violet. They won’t be coming around when I live here, I can guarantee you that … Squatter’s rights!”

As always with a Kathleen Winter piece, the characters, like the sentence-level writing, shine and pop with life. She is a solid and engaging writer of rare talent in creating worlds and people that feel 110% real and engaging. And this story is equal parts humour and humanity. Ultimately, it explores the one kind of love missing in much fiction: the love of place. We have all encountered a place that resonates with us in a primal, passionate, thunderous manner.

“Brute” by Jessica Grant

“One exercise I do is, I look out the window at the pigeons in the wishbone trees, and I imagine not eating them.” Fans of Grant’s writing won’t be surprised she’s dared to write from the point of view of a dog, and anyone skeptical of that will be immediately drawn in, because it turns out dissecting the simple and very sincere inner thoughts of life as a dog is hilarious, especially coming from the literary marvel of Jessica Grant. She’s one of the country’s most original, entertaining, and clever writers.

Humour and atypical points of view aside, “Brute” has everything any good story does: humanity (or in this case, dogmanity), the inner struggles we all share with our fellow species, and big life questions (like, Who is better: the dog who is naturally good, or the one who actively tries to be good?). “Brute” is also replete with story-bettering backstory. “I used to hang around the bus station, eating burger rappers soaked in grease, my ribs countable from the outside.” Our dog in this canine tale is quite the complicated character, who has had to overcome his tumultuous past which included all the struggles of life in the streets, of eluding bounties on one’s head, of plotting murder, and the quest for companionship in this lonely life. And those are just a few of the many adventures only a dog will know. Perhaps now you see why one would write from the point of view of a street dog, turned small-time criminal’s pet: it’s something you haven’t heard before, and it’s a glimpse into a life we – as humans wealthy enough to eat hamburgers instead of hamburger wrappers – will never know.

“Deer Friends” by Ed Riche

In “Deer Friends,” a first rate satirist shares a glimpse into the clashing cast of characters responsible for the City of St. John’s Parks & Public Spaces division. It is of course just as much a skewering of the inter-personal tensions and inherent issues and common personalities present on such boards. But the real crux of the story is how they will deal with the latest community concerns on their agenda, such as the “pollen-sensitive community,” who want to see parts of the city carved out for them to bask in the outdoors without proximity to any allergy-inducing plant species. The story is funny because it’s accurate, which is funny. It’s also funny because its major crisis is this: a man is living in Bowring Park. He is the former director of LSPU HALL, he is not homeless, and he is no longer speaking. No one knows how to address the issue. Except two old friends who “presume” to speak for him as he transitions into … you’ll have to read the story. These two friends are quick to lambast anyone who approximates pathologizing the man in Bowring Park as being in need of medical intervention. “Deer Friends” is a daring, well-delivered piece of satire, exaggerating our increasing political correctness, but only by an inch. It’s bold, weird, and wonderful.

“West Orange” by David Andrews

David Andrews is the only unpublished author in the book, but the quality of his writing is right at home in the collection. He has a manuscript of short fiction called West Orange, which won the Fresh Fish Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, but mysteriously that book has never materialized on stands. Thanks to this anthology, we can all get a peak at his award-winning work.

“West Orange” is about an ageing man, who seems like a loner at peace with nihilism, living on a faraway beach. He finds a used roll of film on the beach, and “there was something about seeing his home through someone else’s eyes that tugged at him, the possibility that he might see himself somewhere in the background and, if nothing else, it was the prospect of a nude picture of a wife or girlfriend looking shy but fierce on a rented bed, made braver by the carnival atmosphere of vacation, a marriage casting off the ropes of home.”

He develops it, and the story becomes a bit of a discussion on why people move to faraway paradises. The writing is strong enough that one can’t really complain about how the first half of the story feels weighed down in excessive detail – it is perhaps intentional, maybe his heightened awareness of the world around him indicates his content with where he is in the world and how enjoyable it is. Or maybe he’s just bored and lonely enough to notice the minutiae of life.

It’s hard not to infer longing and a lack of inter-personal connection from his being so drawn to photos of strangers, and his banal, un-fulfilling conversation with his friends, who feel more like acquaintances who drink together because they’re the only people around. For a beach-set story, this ain’t a cheery piece, and is easily read as the study of a man who has been longing for a meaningful connection so long he’s grown unaware of what having one might even feel like now. The ending, if you want to read into it, indicates he won’t find what he’s looking for in the photos of strangers.

“But Lovers with the Intensity I’m Talking About” by Lisa Moore

For many readers, this brand new and previously unpublished Lisa Moore short story will go down as the best skewering of romantic relationships nearly any Canadian author has mustered, as its narrator, Jim, ruminates on differences between settling with someone, and being levelled by someone.

As the title suggests it’s a story about the transformative power of well-reciprocated lust, the rarity of that connection, and the ever-lasting mark it leaves on the two people who’ve shared such a meaningful, intoxicating relationship. Lust is the only way we know how to consummate our feelings for a partner, so lust is ultimately what forges two people together, but too often, the it’s first thing to flicker out, making it interesting fodder to explore in fiction. The thing that brings two people together isn’t necessarily what keeps them together. So what does keep them together? And what can really fill that void once filled by overwhelming passion? The story starts with the narrator bumping into Marissa, with whom he’d had an intoxicating relationship when they were 20. “I am saying I was never the same after that year with Marissa.”

Things with Jim’s wife are, as they often become, “inert.” We get descriptions of her that paint her as a very respectable, likeable, easy to love person, and that’s what makes the fact of what the narrator refers to as “wifeliness” so interesting. What can possibly explain the change in perception we have for someone we love before, then after spending so much time together?

Who knows, there is no answer, and besides, we’re luckily not all like Jim, or Canada would have the highest divorce rate in the world. Jim can’t quite put a finger on why he is losing his infatuation with his wife. “Forget is the only word I have, though it’s a loose fit.” He is better able to articulate his assessment of settling. “We understood each other perfectly. We could have put it into words.” For some people, a list with more pros than cons is all one needs, but for Jim there is no ignoring wanting that feeling of being so levelled by someone, that feeling of I don’t know why I need you, I just know it’s you, and irreplaceable you, I need. Because the right partner isn’t a sum of ideal traits that a few suitable companions can exhibit: the ideal partner is a collection of un-wordable traits that exist exclusively in the one person you’re infatuated with and drawn to, beyond reason.

The sentence-level writing here is razor sharp, even for a writer of Lisa’s talents. Her writing is so flawless and evocative in this piece that one’s jaw literally drops. There are lines in this story that will level you with sheer wonder at how Moore can manipulate the English language to artfully capture exactly what the character is feeling. “If she bestowed her full attention it was destabilizing … You felt your blood sugars had dropped dangerously, or you had given blood, or that you were living a life less exciting than what was possible.”

Also pleasurable here is how the story meanders from their grocery store interaction, their past, and the narrator’s life, work, wife, inner thoughts, and existential crises, all in small bits at time, so any one storyline never drags on too long. It’s also an accurate depiction of how our minds tumble and wander through everything going on in our head.

More from TheOvercast

Free Album! Fallen Stars: Locals Pay Tribute to International Icons

One year ago today, music lost a legend when Prince died from...
Read More

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.