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Hair Hat

by Carrie Snyder

Short stories, like poems, are often more adept than novels at showcasing tail-ends of thoughts and strange whiffs of emotion. Stories cruise along from moment to moment, bypass or butt up against Meaning, and resist straightforward plot devices in favour of character and consciousness.

In Hair Hat, a collection of 11 linked stories, a man who has grown his hair into the shape of a hat becomes a recurring symbol of loss and yearning – a mystery figure more frightening and ambiguous than the Grim Reaper, and more vulnerable and human than any guardian angel. He wafts through parking lots, parks, parties, and coffee shops. He is an unwelcome reminder of roads not taken, a predator, an escape. He is nostalgia made flesh (or made hair).

But who is he, really? The answer to this question is not nearly as compelling as not knowing. Throughout the collection, Hair Hat becomes the blank slate on which Snyder’s protagonists draw their deepest fears and desires. It is their particular quests and conundrums that make this debut so powerful.

Many of Snyder’s narrators are women, and although the stories are told in the first person, these are distinct voices. The collection opens with two of the strongest stories of the bunch. Francie, the child narrator of “Yellow Cherries,” has lost her best friend in a drowning accident and is staying with her aunt while her mother gives birth. Snyder strikes a perfect balance between Francie’s sense of guilt over her part in the drowning and her complete incomprehension of grown-up protocol surrounding death and mourning. Finally, Francie comes to associate her complicated sadness not with the loss of her friend, but the terrible inevitability of change, when she admits she has grown too big for her favourite “red bear chair.”

A day at the beach turns unsettling, then ugly, in “Tumbleweed,” when we learn the narrator has dragged her children along to escape the knowledge of her husband’s infidelity. She wanders and watches as though anesthetized, overly protective of her daughter and son, less mindful of seemingly faraway emergencies – a stranger’s rescue attempt gone wrong, a car break-in.

When Hair Hat makes an appearance here, she is convinced he will swoop down with his ropy hands to snatch her boy away. When this doesn’t happen, she admits to an ersatz relief: “‘Good,’ I said, although that was not what I felt in my heart. In my heart was a great wrenching as if I was missing the only thing that mattered.”

“Flirtations,” a dissection of those relationship ties that truly bind, works wonderfully as a not-quite-cynical love story (and includes a superb send-up of an English department grad-school party). The closing story, “Chosen,” is a squirm-inducing account of adolescent mortification. Set at a middle-school dance, it follows Leigh-Ann as she wiggles into a terribly wrong skirt in the girls’ bathroom, then submits to a stiff-armed dance with the over-eager Ryan, reasoning that “at least it wasn’t the worst of the losers.”

This story, like the others, derives much of its clout from its uncluttered prose. Snyder’s sentences are, for the most part, declarative and unadorned, so that her dips into description add a striking, whimsical element to the writing. Here, the narrator of “Personal Safety Device” observes a stranger’s stumbling approach: “It was March, too early for flowers, and a skiff of filthy snow adorned everything around us, lumpy reaches of ice awaiting the unsuspecting foot. His boots hit a patch, and he skidded and danced quite daintily for a beaverish fellow.”

Although a few of these stories feel slight compared with the others, their limitations do not detract much from the collection’s overall effect. Even the weaker links are fitting frames for Snyder’s sensibility and her characters’ fleeting realizations that life, like Hair Hat, can be scary, sparkling, and shifty. “Queenie, My Heart,” a frustratingly oblique story at times, still gutted me with its beleaguered protagonist’s earnest query: “Is there any mystery in fortune, really? Is there any mystery in luck? You can fall into it and out of it like tripping over a pocket in the surface of the earth.”

In the second to last story we finally come face-to-face with Hair Hat, and it proves a mixed bag of a moment. Part of me didn’t want to know why this sad, absurd figure had chosen his peculiar coif – he wears it so jauntily, so obliviously, that any explanation is both excessive and inadequate. Still, hooray for Hair Hat! It’s difficult to find fault with a book wearing its heart so bravely on its head.