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Kiss Me

by Andrew Pyper

“In this story I have made for myself I am a troll who lives under the bridge… closing my ears to the clamour of love as it passes over my head.” So mourns the narrator of “Kiss Me,” the title story in a first collection by Toronto writer Andrew Pyper. The unnamed man has been disfigured in a freakish household fire. Spiraling downward into self-pity, he cannot come to terms with either the romantic past inside his damaged head, or the changed present outside it. As a result, he loses his lover, Leah – the one person who might have helped him renegotiate his way back to life.

Grieving and isolated, self-aware, yet somehow unable to ask for help, the burn victim is an extreme version of the men who populate many of Pyper’s stories, which arc from boyhood through young fatherhood, ending again and again in the moment where a narrator finds himself stalled, unable to articulate his need for human connection. In the best of the 13 pieces, Pyper evocatively captures the texture of that yearning, and the youthful naiveté that believes perfect communion is possible. “Camp Sacred Heart” remembers a half-erotic, needful encounter between two boys at a Christian summer camp, and concludes with the narrator’s realization that “It’s not me that he wants, exactly.” That small phrase speaks volumes to the ways in which our early, idealized versions of love collide with reality.

Kiss Me is quite evidently the work of a younger writer, obsessed as it is with the insufficiencies of the family realm, and the subsequent search for satisfaction in the larger world of strangers. Pyper is able to convincingly conjure the romanticized angst of young men, but the women in their lives are less successfully drawn. Mothers are sometimes inexplicably absent in family stories, and girlfriends fall too often into the enigmatic bad-girl archetype exemplified by the creamy-looking bar denizen on the book’s cover. There are exceptions, but viewing this collection as a whole, the reader may wish for a little more ironic distance in some stories, and less passivity in their narrators.