As someone raised in a working-class household, it’s rare for me to read CanLit that evokes the street I grew up on, or includes characters who remind me of my dad. So it was a rewarding surprise to encounter Nancy Jo Cullen’s short-fiction debut, which won the 2011–12 Metcalf-Rooke Award. The author of three previous books of poetry, Cullen writes with tragicomic wisdom about the stuff of life – coming of age, sexuality, fertility, death – creating down-to-earth characters via straightforward and unadorned prose. Canary is also delightfully chock full of queers. Indeed, with this book Cullen is single-handedly responsible for a significant increase in the number of lesbians and bi-curious women populating Canadian short stories.
In “Ashes,” which was longlisted for the 2012 Journey Prize, teenager Jean gets driving lessons from her salesman dad, Ed, who nightly polishes off a six pack from the passenger seat (having switched from his habitual bourbon and Coke, which he reasons is more likely to spill in the car). When not learning how to parallel park, Jean fends off aggressive sexual advances from her brother’s best friend, while her mom makes ceramics with the single mother next door. Booze and a fixation on the impending eruption of Mount St. Helens allow Ed to ignore the disintegration of his marriage as his wife’s sexual identity evolves to exclude him.
Familial discord takes many forms in Canary. In the title story, Kyle’s mother, Judi, insists on playing chaperone on his first date. The evening is agonizing for all involved, for reasons that go far beyond the generation gap. The reader is privy to the inner thoughts of both mother and son, but Judi’s hyperactive perspective, suggestive of a mental-health condition such as narcissistic personality disorder, dominates, and is both comic and sad. In a style reminiscent of Jessica Westhead, Cullen evokes pathos via a distinctive and highly unreliable narrator.
“Happy Birthday” illuminates the intergenerational impact of hardcore alcohol consumption. Unhappy stay-at-home mother Kate grew up with parents who “liked to party,” and now has a lover, Lydia, who downs a bottle of wine on a daily basis. Kate and Lydia get into a vicious spat at an 83rd birthday celebration for Kate’s dementia-addled mother, and Kate chooses an unexpected means of escape. Cullen liberally employs the language of alcohol consumption and abuse to convey an unsettling atmosphere of chaos and unpredictability.
The author’s explorations of intense subject matter recall the short fiction of fellow Biblioasis author Cathy Stonehouse, but Cullen’s ability to mix light and dark moods contrasts with Stonehouse’s near-consistent tonal bleakness. One of Canary’s defining characteristics is an earthy and offbeat sense of humour. Cullen’s quirky, ribald comedic touch rivals writer Greg Kearney.
In “Valerie’s Bush,” the eponymous, middle-aged dyke protagonist embarks on an emotional makeover when her formerly anti-marriage ex gets hitched and reveals plans to raise a family. Valerie’s own new beginning takes the form of a pubic waxing session. The cathartic epilation she undergoes is both humorous and liberating, allowing Valerie to finally express her feelings in a satisfyingly dramatic manner. Another highlight is “The 14th Week in Ordinary Time,” in which a religious, closeted gay man can only “rise to the occasion” of attempting to impregnate his wife if she sings hymns during coitus. Cullen’s humour is generous and never mocking, reflecting an underlying respect for her unconventional characters.
The author revisits the family from “Ashes” late in the collection, in the story “Eddie Truman.” After her turbulent teens, Jean has changed her name and vowed not to raise a family of her own, even though she’s just brought a child to term. An experience in a neonatal intensive care unit may inspire in Jean a change of heart, despite her deep, ongoing estrangement from her own mother.
Not every rift of age and experience is insurmountable. In “Passenger,” Harvey, a former oil-rig worker, allows a rebellious youth named Rayanne to hitch a ride out of small-town Alberta. The grieving old man has pledged to scatter his born-again wife’s ashes in Niagara Falls, and the angry young woman is on a mission to fight patriarchy, heteronormativity, and religion. But Cullen gently reveals what we all suspect: despite Harvey’s old-school appearance and Rayanne’s flannel shirt and brush cut, the two are not so different.
In Canary, queerness turns out to be not that queer after all. The book combines a plenitude of characters infrequently thrown together in CanLit with themes that have universal and enduring appeal. The collection balances a sensitive understanding of the perils and challenges women face with a sympathetic and affectionate take on flawed male characters; there’s not a weak story in this bunch. Cullen is a writer to watch.