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Contrary Angel

by Mike Barnes

The stories that comprise Mike Barnes’ lopsided second collection of short fiction are brought together under no overarching concern or theme, except perhaps one as tenuous as the struggle of characters against themselves.

Barnes, who has also published a book of poetry and a novel, is not afraid of wielding a broad range of techniques, and through much of the book, he succeeds. “Don and Ron,” the opening story, is very nearly a perfect story. In it, a young man working in a Hamilton, Ontario, kitchen starts a relationship with an older woman, who insists on having sex in her backyard to hide it from her mother. The characters are as bizarre as they are real, the dialogue and action paced with taut precision.

“Do Not Stand Outside the Grande Restaurant” is told in a quick-cut montage of scenes. Holding together just enough to tell a lucid story, the form suits its subject – the institutionally insane. The legend of Tom Longboat, a native Canadian long distance runner, is retold in “Cogagwee” in snippets and headlines that simulate one of the story’s props, a scrapbook.

In the last four stories, brought together under the collective title “Doctors,” Barnes’ versatility wears out. In a 180-degree turn from the taut pacing of “Don and Ron,” we get what amounts to a four-part novella with very little plot, and a narrative that drifts into aimless philosophical speculation. Even the smallest things are described in painstaking detail: a character’s computer is “a slim black rectangle of reassuring weight whose top flips up, with small sensitive keys. A brushed grey mouse pad – like a mouse skin actually, stretched and cut to an elegant oval – on which a brush of her fingernail produces a command.” If you didn’t know how to work a laptop before, you do now.

The flawed final stories are such a let-down after the collection’s brilliant opening and strong first half, that perhaps the best way to enjoy Contrary Angel is to read it from back to front.