Tyler Keevil writes stories about men doing manly things. In this, his most immediate and significant literary predecessor is Hemingway, but Keevil also stakes out ground among a group of younger Canadian writers – Kevin Hardcastle, Andrew F. Sullivan, and Kris Bertin among them – whose approach and sensibility are as much about subverting traditional machismo as celebrating it. Indeed, Keevil’s protagonists often bear scant resemblance to the tough, stoic men of the Hemingway school, who may be sensitive souls but bury their sensitivity beneath a rugged and intransigent exterior. Such men, when they appear in Keevil’s fiction, are more often cast in the role of antagonist. The central characters – mostly working-class guys operating in and around Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet – frequently wear their hearts on their sleeves; they are often creative types and display a strong streak of vulnerability.
Even when they do appear as outlaws or roughnecks, they are frequently portrayed as ineffectual. Consider Tim and Jake, the two siblings at the heart of Keevil’s latest novel, No Good Brother. Tim is a prototypical Keevil protagonist, working as a deckhand on a fishing boat. Jake is a musician who spent time in jail for the attempted murder of the drunk driver who killed Sandy, the brothers’ beloved sister. While he’s inside, Jake’s ex arranges protection from associates of Pat and Mark Delaney, two low-level crime lords who try to collect on their marker by having Jake steal a prize racehorse and smuggle it into the U.S.
Jake enlists the help of his brother and the two prove to be less than stellar criminals. (Through a series of convoluted circumstances, they end up hijacking a boat to cross the border.)Though they fancy themselves horse thieves in a grand outlaw tradition, even their chosen nicknames – “Poncho” and “Lefty” – give the game away. “It’s an old country song,” Tim explains late in the novel. “The title is ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ with an ‘a.’ But we always thought they were saying ‘Poncho’ like the ones you wear.”
This comedic streak runs through No Good Brother, which, while nominally a crime story, is really about the bonds of family and the loyalty they demand. And it is here that the novel is at its best: dealing with the vicissitudes and complexities of family relationships. The long middle section onboard the stolen boat (with its stolen cargo jammed into the galley) is baggy and impedes the pace of the narrative, though Keevil is a subtle enough writer that he manages to infuse the awkward triangle featuring Tim, Jake, and the purloined horse with a good deal of emotion, even without the reader realizing he’s doing so.
No Good Brother displays flashes of the ambiguity and nuance Keevil is capable of (right from the submerged pun in the title), but the novel feels overstuffed. The short stories in Sealskin, by contrast, are small gems of concision and intensity. The title story, which won the 2014 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize (full disclosure: I was on the jury that awarded it), is one of several pieces in the book that demonstrate Keevil’s finesse at marrying pristine, fluid prose to situations and characters that pack a large dollop of feeling into a highly concentrated space.
“Edges” is an emotional powerhouse about a clerk at a ski-equipment rental store who takes revenge on an abusive father; the final moments of this piece are heartrending in their potency. “There’s a War Coming” sees two servers at a high-end restaurant dealing with a racist, entitled movie star. And “Mangleface,” about a video-store clerk’s tenuous relationship with a customer whose face has been horribly scarred in a car crash, is a bracingly unsentimental look at the limits of empathy and fellow-feeling.
Keevil does not write about archetypal working-class heroes: he’s too canny for that. The men in these stories are flawed and imperfect, but it is precisely this nuance that renders them so human on the page. And Keevil is highly attuned to what details should be left out: one of the most haunting pieces involves a bereaved father who picks up a hitchhiker transporting some extremely disturbing baggage. This squirm-inducing story is rendered all the more powerful and uncomfortable for its utter lack of resolution.
The 13 pieces in Sealskin can be seen, in one way, as variations on a theme, but in Keevil’s deft hands they never appear rehashed or repetitive. His prose is lucid and his sense of place highly assured. As Frank, the fishing-boat contractor in “The Art of Shipbuilding,” puts it: “It’s like out there, somewhere … is the essence of what this boat is meant to be. The form of it, if it was built perfectly. You’ll never get it there entirely. You’ll never make it perfect. But if you want to be a shipwright your job is to get as close as you can.” The stories in Sealskin get pretty damn close.