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Bad Things Happen

by Kris Bertin

An armchair profiler challenge based on the acknowledgments page in the debut story collection by Kris Bertin, a Haligonian bartender: We are presented with the fact that the stories were written when Bertin was between the ages of 23 and 30; his claim that the stories “might be the only things [he has] ever taken seriously in [his] life”; effusive thanks given to Alice Munro fan Alexander MacLeod and Wes Anderson–lauding cinephile Ryan Paterson; further nods to bar staff and customers for “supplying the raw materials with which to make” the stories. What’s fair to expect from the work itself?

Screen shot 2016-01-26 at 2.22.23 PMSerious? Jokey? Youthful? Quirkily stylized? Woebegone in a David Adams Richards vein? Cinematic? Munroesque with tinges of bleary-eyed Bukowski? Yes, no, sometimes.

In fact, Bertin’s collection offers a delightful showcase of interests and an accomplished range of styles and tones, running from relatively straightforward realism and mirthful comedy to transplanted “swamp Gothic” that wouldn’t have felt out of place as a border-crossing episode in the darkly panoramic first season of True Detective.

Consider the exemplary bookends, the title story and “Your #1 Killer.” In the first, set in a bleak New Brunswick town “so rural it doesn’t even exist” (as Bertin quipped in an interview), the restless and bored adolescent girl narrator breaks into the porn-strewn hovel of a gas station attendant she and her friend have crushes on. In the last, a mother struggles with her angry, secretive, and troubled son – who may or may not be returning home after brushes with the law (he’s as unforthcoming as a stone). In each of these pieces, Bertin conjures tense and memorably vivid tableaux that rest on a strong foundation of fraught understanding and hit-and-miss communication between emotionally invested individuals.

Chris, the lost and underemployed son in “#1 Killer,” also appears (at different ages and in different locations) in “Girl on the Fire Escape” (which won The Malahat Review’s Jack Hodgins Founders’ Award for Fiction in 2011) and “Everywhere Money.” With themes involving sowing oats, the tricky promise of easy money (via live-sex websites and credit-card scams), and other ethical entanglements, these three stories form a coming-of age triptych with an ironic but wholly satisfying and apt conclusion.

“The Narrow Passage,” a mini-masterpiece that traces the route of junior and senior garbage collectors (as well as their evolving masculine power dynamic), flirts with literary horror as its attention shifts toward a junk-heap of a house on a rural New Brunswick road whose inhabitants may have mistaken The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for a documentary.

“Crater Arms” is tinged with David Lynch–style grotesquerie, but uses it to largely comic effect, as Bertin peers into the goings-on at a creaky low-rent apartment building. He touches on the hallucinatory and surreal in “Is Alive and Can Move,” a tale of a custodian recovering from alcohol dementia. In a different vein, “The Story Here,” an amusing and incisive family drama, captures the tensions of a squabbling clan brought together for inauspicious reasons. The clever and smile-inducing experiment “Make Your Move” contains four complete sections, each of which illustrates the limited options available to a limousine driver over a particularly disastrous night shift. “The Eviction Process” straddles comedy and sobering realism as it traces a pair of gentrifiers with dubious values whose attempts to evict tenants is neither as easy nor consequence-free as they’d presumed.

Brash (in the best possible sense), intriguing, and consummate without being showy, these are terrific stories in a strong, diverse, and fascinating collection.