I for one will never tire of stories about solitary, bookish men lounging around Europe and sleeping with beautiful, mysterious women who are desperate to know what they’re thinking. In the linked short-fiction collection Last Words, Hugh Graham has his way with this foundational conceit of western literature and tries to squeeze a bit more juice out of it.
Two stories stand out. “Next to Last,” the book’s opener, tells the tale of John Last, a character who could have come straight out of Camus’s The Stranger. Last is – you guessed it – a solitary, bookish man on the run from his life in Toronto and holed up at the Luxembourg Hotel in Paris. The story takes a twist when Last befriends a brash American named Howard who turns out to be a CIA operative looking to conscript the expat Canuck to help thwart a looming terrorist attack.
The second highlight is “Elmira Rawlinson.” The titular character, longing to escape her abusive family, strikes up a romance with a boy named Tom. The story includes a number of entertaining set pieces, including a sex scene atop a pile of livestock excrement. (It’s better than it sounds.) “Elmira Rawlinson” is full of great comedy but also tremendous violence. It’s like a Quentin Tarantino film set in an Ontario backwater.
Most of Graham’s stories tread the well-worn avenues of deliberate – some might say self-conscious – literary fiction. We see an emphasis on the past; tropes around sin and redemption; and lots of quiet, inward-looking men who wonder what it all means. Still, there’s enough lively writing here to keep a patient, generous reader turning the pages.