Tales for Late Night Bonfires is the long-awaited second work of fiction from Nłeʔkepmx writer G.A. Grisenthwaite. In 12 stories (some previously published), Grisenthwaite returns with the distinctive voice that characterized his debut, Home Waltz, a novel that was a finalist for the 2021 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.
The opening story, “Splatter Pattern,” tells of a shy, quiet boy, who is described by the plural narrator (“we”) as “the kind of sad that attracts rain like a pile of crap attracts flies.” Writing in spare prose, Grisenthwaite crafts a devastating portrait of the boy’s family and upbringing. The narrators recount the father’s condescension toward his son and his mother and reveal the lasting effects of his hate: the boy eventually shoots his father in the street.
The boy is dubbed as “Me-Who-Looks-At-Me,” a moniker that both conveys his alienation and serves as a persona that “steals that kid’s, the boy’s, dreams; night dreams; day dreams; dreams inside dreams; dreams inside the brain pictures behind the words that kid, the boy, says out loud.” (Admittedly, words like “moniker” and “persona” reduce the intricacy of Grisenthwaite’s complex storytelling, which has resonances with Home Waltz’s darker coming-of-age themes, many of which appear in the collection, though they never define it as a whole.) Adding a further layer, the narrators, who witness the shooting, are wary of the police, complicating their role in the story both as passive bystanders and a sympathetic community that keeps the truth to themselves because “truth might let some free, but it imprisons many more.”
In “Three Bucks,” a story about sharing stories by a bonfire, four men relate their hunting stories and poke wholesome fun at one of the guys when he boasts of shooting several bucks within a few minutes. In his retelling, the raconteur pauses for maximum effect:
“Right between the eyes. Bang.”
Right here, at this spot in the story, Alistair stops the story.
Maybe he paused a little too long.
Grisenthwaite’s humour is unstoppable.
In “ball lightnin,” Grisenthwaite reimagines a story his grandmother told him about her childhood in Lytton, B.C. As she returns from picking raspberries with her grandma and auntie, following her dog that is running ahead on the railway tracks, a little girl is chased by a ball of lightning that “spreads that stink a ozone.” Grisenthwaite’s play with form looks like poetry on the page and moves with the agility of the storytelling itself. The breaks capture the frantic sense of the chase:
her gran and auntie screamin after her
their berries bouncing off the gravel between two ties
and them old women, all in one motion
hike up their skirts and chase the lightning
chasin that little girl
The ending takes an unexpected turn as the runaway dog whimpers and “tries lickin” the smile off the girl’s face when it finally emerges from hiding.
Grisenthwaite’s style dazzles with its flow and movement, recalling the prose-to-poetry shifts that characterize such novels as Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which break narrative conventions with certain passages that look and read like poetry.
In the afterword, Grisenthwaite acknowledges the influence of Thomas King and his concept of “interfusional style,” which King describes as Indigenous literature that blends oral and written traditions. Grisenthwaithe asks us to read the stories aloud, and when I did, I was reminded of the constructedness of the genres of poetry and fiction. I also laughed – loudly.
Tales for Late Night Bonfires is funny, dark, and rich all at once; each story is immense and alive. Grisenthwaite shows us what fiction can be when story leads the way.