Racket is a collection of unpublished short stories from a new wave of exciting writers from Newfoundland. It was curated by internationally renowned author Lisa Moore, because it features 11 authors she met while teaching them creative writing a MUN.
Matthew Lewis’s “The Jawbone Box”
Matthew Lewis, who kicks off the anthology, is a stylist: he wields words in a way you’ve never read, and it marks him not as an exciting new voice, but one of the most exciting writers in town, period.
His piece, “The Jawbone Box,” hooks you into a story of a man pondering mortality, and the obscenities of the world — he can’t eat at a diner without wondering how many mouths have bitten his fork, and there is always a hair in this man’s soup, a stain on his hotel room carpet. He’s an inspector of homes for an insurance company. He does not like the job. He travels too much. “Home is still a long way out. Home is a telescope in reverse.”
When he drives past a box of jawbones, he’s perplexed, fascinated, revolted. “There was nothing specific about the sign. The sign did not say, squirrel jawbones or moose jawbones …” Lewis draws on 2nd person narration, fittingly, as his work is work that wonders the things we all do, so his narrative style adds to something universal to the stories. “The Jawbone Box” is a powerful personal reckoning, told in a unique voice, with a sophisticated splash of metaphor and symbolism you can miss without missing the thrill of the piece.
Jenina MacGillivray’s “Gorrilas”
Jenina MacGillivray’s story “Gorillas” features a very interesting character, one you’ve never quite in fiction before. Anna has a child’s curiosity about the world, and an artist’s need to capture that curiosity. She’s a character who … thinks she’s a gorilla, but that’s beside the point in the grander scheme of the story.
Anna’s sister narrates the story, conjuring a sibling tale about a bond that even mental illness cannot break. The relationship is solid, sweet, and forged by the power of nostalgia, or the connection only siblings can share, having spent so much of their lives together.
“Gorillas” is interesting for showing us how a sister can understand a sister in a way trained professionals — who lump her into a pigeonhole — cannot. No two people with a mental illness are the same because our personalities, not our illnesses define us.
The story refuses to milk the darkness of mental illness for its drama. Instead, the author is wringing it out to show us a different perspective on it, and her concept is a refreshing read. As many as 1 in 5 Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime. It’s about time we change the way we think about – or in this case, write about – them.
“She loses the thread of what somethings mean,” the narrator says of her sister, “or she picks up a very different thread. It occurs to me that sometimes her thread is just as good or in fact better than any other thread.”
Her sister’s state of mind isn’t a burden, it’s a reason to like her company and conversation. As for the narrator, she’s bored and unsure of any meaning in life. She’s wondering, like Descartes, what “being” even means. This is a perfectly enjoyable short story, on so many levels.
Iain McCurdy’s “Crossbeams”
Iain McCurdy’s “Crossbeams” opens strongly with the point that “there are unstoppable forces in the world; you can try and stop them, or you can become one.” There are lines in this story any writer would love. McCurdy also toys with the power of punctuation for effect, or to get a point across about the urgency and potency of the moments that matter the most to us.
Where some writers would use the cliché, “it was like riding a roller coaster,” McCurdy instead straps you into the roller coaster and sends your stomach up into your throat. He can cover the ground of a paragraph in one sentence, or he can explode what would’ve been but one sentence, for any other writer, into a story in itself.
And what is fiction but amply capturing the defining moments in a character’s life? We’ve all read the boy meets girl story. But not quite like this.
Mellisa Barbeau’s “Holes”
Melissa Barbeau’s story “holes” takes on a hot, sweaty, rainy night on George Street. It employs sinister language to build an air of impending doom: a questionable man “eels” around the room; cool air “snakes” around ankles. Things spit and hiss, and a man has “dark and bottomless” eyes.
But does the story unfold as you’d expect? Of course not, not in a collection like this. Barbeau baits you with quality writing and drags you through an imaginative piece in 5 short pages.
Gary Newhook’s “23 Things I Hate in No Particular Order”
Gary Newman’s piece opens thusly, “I’m pissed off and I’m drunk, so I’m good and uninhibited now.” A man is writing a letter that is exactly what the title promises “23 things I hate in no particular order.”
He wasn’t always angry, “I was a pretty normal kid. I drew little pictures, I played Nintendo with my older brother.” But he’s certainly a bitter man now; bitter about his shortcomings, bitter about how this life has alienated him, and bitter about those who’ve helped it do so, like the close-minded literary magazines that reject him.
He has some decent points: who wants to pay municipal taxes to a town that ploughs his street last, or who wants to watch a fleet of tractors turn the burial site of his childhood hamster into a subdivision of “prefabricated shitboxes?”
Some of these frustrations are things any townie will understand. “Why can’t we figure out a mixture of paint that will stay on the road for an entire winter? I don’t know if I’m supposed to turn or go straight.” What the piece amounts to really, is an angry autobiography of some past events and dislikes that have made the man who he is.
It’s an interesting way to get to know someone, and aren’t we all just a list of the moments that define us? Give me a list of 20 things you cannot abide, and I’ll tell you who you are.
Susan Sinott’s “Benched”
Susan Sinott’s story, “Benched,” was released in a topical time: everyone’s got sports on the brain from the Fall 2015 Blue Jays Craze.
“Benched” tells the story of a young athlete coming to terms with the consequences of a career-ending injury – his leg being his ticket to the job or at least passion that’d fuel his life. There story is a bit predictable, or straight-forward – as if it’s more of a scene from a larger work – but it’s certainly successful too.
Jamie Fitzpatrick’s “Like Jewels”
Jamie Fitzpatrick’s “Like Jewels” excels at the mood he creates with his language; Jamie knows language, and a careful crafting of it, is how you glue a reader to a story and make them care.
While “Like Jewels” could be summarized as a family reeling from loss after a sudden accident, it’s more dynamic than that: what’s at stake in the story, the focus of the piece, is refreshingly ever-changing to hold your interest in it, and waylay predictability.
Carrie Ivardi’s “Rescue”
Carrie Ivardi’s “Rescue” puts readers in the snowboarding boots of its main character, Adam: a ski hill employee dealing a rescue on the hill while reflecting on his season’s fling with an enigmatic musician named Layla (who plays a guitar she took out of the cold dead hands of a deceased homeless person).
The focus of the story is on the lingering tensions between Adam and Layla, to the point the rescue itself goes a little underdeveloped, but then one could chaulk the rescue, the storm, up to metaphor. “Rescue” is a good musing on the complexity of romantic entanglements, and the mental storms they can muster.
Mel Oates’ “A Holy Show”
Mel Oates’ piece “A Holy Show,” showcases her way with style, voice, and tone, and how well she employs these things to create an engaging voice. This one’s a pleasure to read, and is the story of so many people living in St. John’s these days: good women and their undeserving men.
It’s far more funny than that description sounds, and has a strong woman at its core: she’s in control of, and at peace with her relationship with the story’s troublemaker. Well, kind of, most of the story is her watching him with other women, with contempt and even-keeled jealousy. “Three of them from the scrot table, with one dress between them, scurry out behind him.”
As her old friends in the bar point out, “Isn’t he s’posed to be a bit of an idiot?” She concedes “he is, yeah,” but then, if the human heart thought rationally, we’d have no human struggles to write about. Their evening together ends the best way it could have to add substance to both the characters and the story itself.
Morgan Murray’s “KC Accidental”
Morgan Murray’s “KC Accidental” cuts right to the chase with the opening line, “KC was hit by a bus — the number 7.” He’d been “carrying a six-foot fake Christmas tree under one arm and trying to send a text message to his mother with the other.”
Naturally, the story isn’t about KC, he’s dead. Things shift instead to, say, what various city departments do or refuse to do to clean up such a mess outside of, of all places, a daycare. It’s a funny piece in that KC’s misfortunes do not end with being killed by a bus, but it’d be a spoiler to elaborate.
Murray’s highly original and entertaining story proves you don’t need a character, per se, to tell a story … and you have never read a short story like this one before. What better could be said of a piece of writing?
Sharon Bala’s “A Drawer Full of Guggums”
Sharon Bala’s story, “A Drawer Full of Guggums,” is that of Cait, who had “come to England to research the mercurial genius Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but had fallen under the spell of his melancholy mistress, Lizzie Siddall.”
Cait’s desires mirror Lizzie’s, and for better or worse, she’s boarding with an older, lonely lady who might be a glimpse at the shoes she’ll be in in 40-50 years time if she carries on living as she does.
As Lisa Moore says in the introduction, Bala “doesn’t waste a word in capturing the complexity of these women’s lives, desires, disappointments, and fears.” Bala is indeed a sharp and evocative writer, who has earned impressive awards all year long. So it’s nice to be able to sample the goods here.
You are certain to read this book and come away from it with a few more names of local writers you’re excited about.